In a new report published in Expert Review of Vaccines, the Global Meningococcal Initiative (GMI) – a leading group of scientists, doctors and public health officials – warns that the incidence of meningococcal meningitis strains with resistance to traditional antibiotics is at risk of increasing worldwide.

 Gram-negative Neisseria meningitidis diplococcal bacteria/CDC
Gram-negative Neisseria meningitidis diplococcal bacteria/CDC

Over the past 50 years, vaccines that prevent some types of meningococcal disease (which can cause meningitis) and antibiotics that prevent and treat the disease, have significantly reduced cases and deaths in many countries.

Research shows that meningococcal bacteria are able to acquire genes from other strains and that genes that give the bacteria reduced susceptibility or complete resistance to life-saving antibiotics can be passed from one type of bacteria to another.

In the war between bacteria and antibiotics, this means ever higher dosages of antibiotics are needed and eventually they may stop working altogether. Without alternatives, the bacteria will eventually win, and there are worrying signs this is at risk of happening for certain types of meningitis in the future.

Scientists were concerned to discover strains of meningococcal bacteria that have acquired genes from closely related gonorrhea, a leading cause of sexually transmitted disease. This is particularly concerning as gonorrhea that is resistant to most antibiotic treatments (super-resistant gonorrhea) is a major world-wide problem.

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Professor Ray Borrow, GMI Chair said, “Antibiotic resistance is a major threat to human health. It’s clear that global surveillance of the strains causing meningococcal disease, as well as surveillance of antibiotic resistance, is vitally important. This would ensure that any emergent strains that pose a significant threat are identified early so that routine and reactive vaccination programs with suitable vaccines can be quickly introduced.”

Vinny Smith, GMI Steering Group Member and Chief Executive at Meningitis Research Foundation said, “Meningitis and septicemia are deadly diseases that can have a devastating impact on individuals and their families. It’s far better to prevent the diseases through vaccination than to rely on treatment with antibiotics, especially given the rising threat of antibiotic resistance.

“Meningitis spreads around the world and we need a coordinated effort to defeat it. This year the World Health Organization launched an expert taskforce to develop a global roadmap to defeat meningitis by 2030, and MRF is delighted to be taking part.”

Sam Nye, Executive Director at the Confederation of Meningitis Organizations said, “Today, we have critical tools to help fight meningitis – antibiotics and vaccines. With increasing antibiotic resistance, we will lose one of these tools, leaving infants, children and adults at higher risk of the devastating consequences of meningitis, such as long-term disability and even death.

“We work with meningitis advocacy groups all over the world to promote the importance of vaccines; vaccines not only have the capability to save lives today, they can also help to reduce the spread of antibiotic resistance, saving millions of lives in future years.”