Nasopharyngeal swabbing substantially underestimates carriage of Neisseria meningitidis. Real-time PCR assays were employed to examine the presence of a broad range of bacteria and of N. meningitidis groups B and C, respectively, in tonsils from 26 individuals from Oxford, England, and 72 individuals from Zurich, Switzerland. The detection limit of each PCR system was DNA from one bacterial cell per reaction mixture. Tonsillar DNA did not inhibit amplification of meningococcal gene sequences, and N. meningitidis was detected in tonsils exposed to the bacterium. Whereas in both sets of patients other bacteria were detected, N. meningitidis group B and group C were only found in tonsils from Oxford where the incidence of invasive meningococcal disease is much higher than in Zurich. These observations suggest that PCR-based methods could be used for the detection of meningococcal carriage and that difference in disease incidence could be explained by different transmission rates in the community rather than host genetics or coexisting infections.