Susceptibility to systemic meningococcal disease is related to a selective deficiency of humoral antibodies to pathogenic strains of meningococci. In a study of the age-specific incidence of meningococcal meningitis in the United States, it was found that the proportion of individuals with serum bactericidal activity to meningococci of serogroups A, B, and C was reciprocally related to the incidence of disease. The prevalence of bactericidal activity was highest at birth and among adults, and lowest in infants between 6 and 24 months of age.
Sera from 51 of 54 prospective cases of meningococcal disease among military recruits were deficient in antibodies to homologous and heterologous strains of pathogenic meningococci as determined by serum bactericidal activity and indirect immunofluorescence. Such sera, however, could support the bactericidal activity of purified human gamma globulin (Cohn fraction II), and such individuals could respond immunologically to infection with meningococci. The implication is that susceptible persons are deficient in antimeningococcal antibodies because they have not received significant exposure to meningococcal antigens in the past.
The fate of individuals who lack bactericidal antibodies to pathogenic meningococci was determined during an outbreak of group C meningitis among military recruits. The incidence of disease was found to be primarily associated with the incidence of exposure of susceptibles to the pathogenic strains. Whereas 81.5% of the presumed susceptibles acquired a meningococcal strain, only 24.1% acquired an organism similar to the prevalent disease-producing strains. Of the exposed susceptibles, 38.5% developed systemic meningococcal disease.