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J Clin Microbiol. 2000 Jun;38(6):2311-6.

Dynamics of meningococcal long-term carriage among university students and their implications for mass vaccination.

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Meningococcal Research Group, Divisions of Microbiology, University Hospital, Nottingham University, Nottingham NG7 2UH, United Kingdom.


In the 1997-98 academic year, we conducted a longitudinal study of meningococcal carriage and acquisition among first-year students at Nottingham University, Nottingham, United Kingdom. We examined the dynamics of long-term meningococcal carriage with detailed characterization of the isolates. Pharyngeal swabs were obtained from 2,453 first-year students at the start of the academic year (October), later on during the autumn term, and again in March. Swabs were immediately cultured on selective media, and meningococci were identified and serologically characterized. Nongroupable strains were genetically grouped using a PCR-based assay. Pulsed-field gel electrophoresis was used to determine the link between sequential isolates. Of the carriers initially identified in October, 44.1% (98 of 222) were still positive later on in the autumn (November or December); 57.1% of these remained persistent carriers at 6 months. Of the index carriers who lost carriage during the autumn, 16% were recolonized at 6 months. Of 344 index noncarriers followed up, 22.1% acquired carriage during the autumn term and another 13.7% acquired carriage by March. Overall, 43.9% (397 of 904) of the isolates were noncapsulated (serologically nongroupable); by PCR-based genogrouping, a quarter of these belonged to the capsular groups B and C. The ratio of capsulated to noncapsulated forms for group B and C strains was 2.9 and 0.95, respectively. Sequential isolates of persistent carriers revealed that individuals may carry the same or entirely different organisms at different times. We identified three strains that clearly switched their capsular expression on and off at different times in vivo. One student developed invasive meningococcal disease after carrying the same organism for over 7 weeks. The study revealed a high rate of turnover of meningococcal carriage among students. Noncapsulated organisms are capable of switching their capsular expression on and off (both ways) in the nasopharynx, and group C strains are more likely to be noncapsulated than group B strains. Carriage of a particular meningococcal strain does not necessarily protect against colonization or invasion by a homologous or heterologous strain.

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