A study was done to test the effectiveness of fecal occult blood as a screening test for invasive bacterial pathogens and as a substitute for the fecal leukocyte examination in adult and pediatric cases of acute diarrhea. United States citizens studying in Mexico and Mexican children, both with acute diarrhea had their stools cultured, examined for fecal leukocytes, and tested for occult blood. Using culture results as the criterion standard for detection of bacterial agents, and fecal leukocytes for diarrhea associated with diffuse colonic inflammation, occult blood was tested for its sensitivity, specificity, and predictive value using 2 x 2 tables. Analysis of the data found that occult blood negative samples were reliable indicators of a lack of invasive bacteria in both adult and pediatric patients (negative predictive values of 87% and 96%, respectively). Positive results for either test were not reliably predictive as indicators of invasive bacteria among adults. A positive occult blood test result was significantly more sensitive than a positive fecal leukocyte test result (79% versus 42%) in detecting invasive bacteria in the pediatric patients; however, the positive predictive value was only 24%. The fecal occult blood test is an uncomplicated, low-cost test that was reliable when giving a negative result in detecting a lack of invasive bacteria in adult and pediatric patients with diarrhea. In children, a positive result on a fecal occult blood test is sensitive but not specific in detecting invasive bacterial enteropathogens. These data also indicate that a commercially available test for occult blood represents a suitable alternative to microscopic examination of fecal samples for leukocytes obtained from patients with acute diarrhea.