We examined the expression of the CD45RO antigen, which characterizes the antigen primed/memory phenotype of T lymphocytes, as a marker for congenital infection in blood samples of newborns and fetuses. CD45RO expression on T cells was determined by triple-colour fluorescence flow cytometry. In total 537 blood samples of newborns and infants up to an age of 3 months and 89 fetal blood samples from gestational weeks 19-31 were analysed. Of the newborns and infants, 74 had a clinically, serologically and/or antigenically evident infection, and four of the fetuses had a confirmed intra-uterine infection. In 35 infants with acute predominantly bacterial infections such as sepsis or pneumonia, 17 (48.6%) had elevated CD45RO(bright) expression. In 39 infants with proven pre-, peri- or early post-natal infections with toxoplasmosis, cytomegalovirus (CMV), rubella, herpes simplex virus (HSV) or human herpes virus type 6 (HHV6), 25 (64.1%) exhibited enhanced CD45RO(bright) expression. Three of four fetuses with confirmed intra-uterine infection (three with CMV, one with parvovirus B19) exhibited elevated CD45RO(bright) expression. The specificity of the CD45RO assay for detecting microbial infections was 94.6% for newborns and infants up to 3 months and 90.6% for fetuses. It is concluded that elevated numbers of CD45RO(bright) T cells in infants up to 3 months of age strongly suggest an infection. However, the sensitivity of the CD45RO assay is not sufficient to enable the test to be used as a general marker for prescreening infants to detect pre-, peri- or early post-natally acquired infections.