The evolution of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) antibody titers determined by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay between birth and 18 months of age was investigated in 118 babies born to HIV-1-seropositive South African mothers. By 18 months 41 (34.7%) children were diagnosed as HIV-1-infected by standard criteria. All 77 uninfected babies cleared maternal antibodies by 15 months; 94.5% of these babies seroreverted by 12 months. By 9 months of age a significant difference (P < 0.05) was noted between antibody decay rates in infected and uninfected children. Of the children subsequently shown to be uninfected, 95.8% demonstrated > or = 50% decay in antibody titers between 6 and 9 months; only 1 in the infected group showed a similar pattern (sensitivity, 97.8%; specificity, 93.8%). The approach of assessing the progression of antibody decay in infected and uninfected babies makes it a feasible and useful tool for estimating vertical transmission rates and diagnosis of perinatal HIV-1 infection earlier than standard practice.