Neisseria meningitidis is an obligate human commensal bacterium that frequently colonises the upper respiratory tract. Person-to-person transmission occurs via direct contact or through dispersion of respiratory droplets from a carrier of the bacteria, and can lead to invasive meningococcal disease. Rare sporadic cases of meningococcal urogenital and anorectal infections, including urethritis, proctitis, and cervicitis, have been reported, typically following orogenital contact with an oropharyngeal meningococcal carrier. The resulting infections were clinically indistinguishable from infections caused by Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Over the past two decades, there have also been multiple outbreaks across North America and Europe of invasive meningococcal disease among men who have sex with men (MSM). The responsible meningococci belong to a highly virulent and predominantly serogroup C lineage, including strains that are able to express nitrite reductase and grow in anaerobic environments, such as the urogenital and anorectal tracts. More recently, a distinct clade within this lineage has expanded to cause urethritis predominantly among men who have sex with women. Evolutionary events giving rise to this clade included the loss of the ability to express a capsule, and acquisition of several gonococcal alleles, including one allele encoding a highly efficient gonococcal nitrite reductase. Members of the clade continue to acquire gonococcal alleles, including one allele associated with decreased antibiotic susceptibility. This evolution has implications for the clinical and public health management of those who are infected and their close contacts, in terms of both antibiotic treatment, and prevention through vaccination.
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