Tufts Co-Chairs International Pathogenic Neisseria Conference
Provost and Senior Vice President Caroline Genco is one of the co-chairs of the 23rd International Pathogenic Neisseria Conference, which will be held in Boston beginning September 24. Paola Massari, research associate professor in the Department of Immunology at the Tufts University School of Medicine is another co-chair of the conference.
Co-hosted by Tufts University School of Medicine and Boston University’s Chobanian and Avesidian School of Medicine, the conference aims to bring together scientists and clinicians whose research focuses on pathogenic Neisseria species. Over the course of six days, conference participants will gather to discuss the clinical presentation, epidemiology, population genomics, vaccine research and development, host-pathogen interactions and gene regulation of these Neisseria species.
Tufts Now spoke with Genco, who also holds the Arthur E. Spiller M.D. Endowed Professorship in Genetics at the School of Medicine, to share the following insights about the sexually transmitted infections on which the upcoming conference will focus.
Tufts Now: What are the diseases for which the pathogenic Neisseria species are responsible?
Caroline Genco: The pathogenic Neisseria species, N. gonorrhoeae and N. meningitidis, are responsible for the diseases gonorrhea and meningitis, respectively.
How prevalent are these diseases and what makes them a public health concern? Why should the average person be concerned?
Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that primarily affects the genital tract, but can also infect the rectum, throat, and eyes. It is one of the most common bacterial STIs worldwide, with millions of cases reported annually. The recent rise of antibiotic-resistant N. gonorrhoeae strains makes this disease a serious public health concern.
Many women may not realize they are infected; N. gonorrhoeae infection is often asymptomatic or mild in women, contributing to its transmission. The lack of symptoms can also cause frequent and serious complications, and the lack of or delays in treatment can lead to an increased HIV transmission.
N. gonorrhoeae is difficult to treat due to its resistance to antibiotics and there is currently no vaccine available, increasing its serious public health risk.
N. meningitidis, or invasive meningococcal disease, is a serious and often fatal disease. Inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord (meningitis) can lead to complications such as blindness, hearing loss, neurological disorders, decreased consciousness, and paralysis.
The presence of bacteria in the bloodstream (septicemia) is a frequent cause of loss of limbs in survivors. Meningococcal disease can progress rapidly and is associated with high morbidity and mortality, particularly in infants, adolescents and young adults, and adults over 85 years old. The rate of meningococcal disease worldwide varies by geographic region, with a higher prevalence in sub-Saharan Africa.
N. meningitidis is also responsible for sporadic cases or outbreaks, especially in crowded or closed settings (e.g., colleges, military installations), which can be challenging to control. Vaccination is a crucial preventive measure and vaccines are available against several N. meningitidis strains.
What more can you share about the disproportionate impact of STIs on women and the significance of same?
The disproportionate impact of STIs on women is a significant concern for public health (including women’s health, which is often overlooked) and gender equity. Not only is N. gonorrhoeae infection often asymptomatic or mild, leading to higher transmission, but undetected, and untreated infections lead to devastating reproductive complications. These include pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), with chronic pelvic pain, scarring and damage to the fallopian tubes and reproductive organs leading to increased risk of infertility, ectopic pregnancy, preterm birth, low birth weight, and neonatal infections.
Outside of these devastating health effects, gonorrhea can take a personal, emotional, and economic toll on women, compounding existing social disparities. STIs still carry strong social stigma—and the burden of individual and community increased health care costs causes significant financial strain.