Background: Diagnosis of Mycoplasma pneumoniae (MP) infection is traditionally based on serology, which may require more than two weeks for diagnostic antibodies to develop. PCR-based methods offer earlier diagnosis. During a community outbreak of MP infection, we compared semi-nested and real-time PCR of oropharyngeal swabs with serology for diagnosis of MP infection at different time points after disease onset. PCR-positive individuals were followed longitudinally to assess the persistence of MP DNA in throat secretions. We also studied carriage of MP among household contacts and school children.
Results: MP infection was diagnosed in 48 of 164 patients with respiratory tract infection. Forty-five (29%) had detectable MP DNA in oropharynx. A significant increase in MP IgG IgG titre or MP IgM antibodies was detected in 44/154 (27%) subjects. Two MP PCR-positive patients lacked antibody responses. Sera were missing from another two patients. The agreement between serology and PCR was good, kappa = 0.90. During the first three weeks after disease onset the performance of PCR was excellent and all patients but one were detected. In contrast, only 21% of the patients with confirmed MP infection were positive by serum 1 during the first symptomatic week (56% during the second and 100% during the third week). Only 1/237 (0.4%) school children was positive by PCR. This child had respiratory symptoms. Eighteen of 22 (75%) symptomatic household contacts were MP PCR positive. Persistence of MP DNA in the throat was common. Median time for carriage of MP DNA was 7 weeks after disease onset (range 2 days - 7 months). Adequate antibiotic treatment did not shorten the period of persistence. Bacterial load, measured by quantitative real-time PCR declined gradually, and all followed patients eventually became PCR-negative.
Conclusion: PCR is superior to serology for diagnosis of MP infection during the early phases of infection. Persistent, sometimes long-term, carriage of MP DNA in the throat is common following acute infection, and is not affected by antibiotic therapy. Asymptomatic carriage of MP even during an outbreak is uncommon.