Epidemiologic aspects of the relationship between infection with Leishmania chagasi and development of clinical visceral leishmaniasis (VL) were studied in all children < 11 years old in a defined, endemic, rural area of the state of Ceará in northeast Brazil. Antileishmanial antibodies were measured in the same subjects by ELISA on six occasions between May 1987 and August 1989. Seroconversion was documented during this period in 108 children, with a cumulative annual incidence of 4.6%. Twelve (11.1%) of these children developed VL. Age < 4 years, hematocrit < 33%, and living in the mountains predicted the development of clinically apparent VL after seroconversion. Despite a high percentage of dogs serologically positive in the region (38%), there was no increased risk of infection for children living in the same household with dogs. Since children in households with a prior case of VL had a threefold increased risk of infection, human-sandfly-human transmission might have been important.