Enterovirus 71 (EV71), the newest member of Enteroviridae, is notable for its etiological role in epidemics of severe neurological diseases in children. Developing effective vaccines is considered a top choice among all control measures. We compared the inactivated virus vaccine (10 microg protein/mouse) with subunit vaccines--VP1 DNA vaccine (100 microg/mouse) or recombinant VP1 protein (10 microg/mouse)--in its ability to elicit maternal antibody and to provide protection against lethal infection of EV71 in suckling mice. Prior to gestation, all three groups of vaccinated dams possessed similar levels of neutralizing antibody. With a challenge dose of 2300 LD(50) virus/mouse, suckling mice born to dams immunized with inactivated virus showed 80% survival. The subunit vaccines provided protection only at a lower challenge dosage of 230 LD(50) per mouse, with 40% survival for DNA vaccine and 80% survival for VP1 protein. The cytokine profile produced by splenocytes showed a high level of IL-4 in the inactivated virus group, high levels of IFN-gamma and IL-12 in the DNA vaccine group, and high levels of IL-10 and IFN-gamma in the VP1 protein group. Overall, the inactivated virus elicited a much greater magnitude of immune response than the subunit vaccines, including total IgG, all four IgG subtypes, and T-helper-cell responses; these antibodies were shown to be protective against lethal infection when passively transferred to susceptible newborn mice. Our data indicated that inactivated virus is the choice of vaccine preparation capable of fulfilling the demand for effective control, and that VP1 subunit vaccines remain promising vaccine strategies that require further refinement.