Acquisition of virulence genes by a carrier strain gave rise to the ongoing epidemics of meningococcal disease in West Africa

Historically, Neisseria meningitidis serogroup A strains have caused large epidemics of meningitis across sub-Saharan Africa. Following mass vaccination from 2010, serogroup A outbreaks have been mostly eliminated. Starting in 2013 however, yearly epidemics of a previously unknown serogroup C strain have led to tens of thousands of cases in Nigeria and Niger. We show how this new strain evolved from a benign ancestor through the acquisition of virulence genes encoding the serogroup C capsule and a phage linked to invasiveness, illustrating that minor genetic changes in a microbe can have major public health consequences. Our reconstruction of the spatiotemporal outbreak dynamics in the Niger–Nigeria border region suggests direct epidemiological consequences of contrasting outbreak responses in the two countries.

Authors: Ola Brønstad Brynildsrud, Vegard Eldholm, Jon Bohlin, Kennedy Uadiale, Stephen Obaro, Dominique A. Caugant