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To establish the role of maternal dengue-specific antibodies in the development of dengue hemorrhagic fever and dengue shock syndrome caused by dengue 2 virus in infants, we examined sera from mothers of infants and toddlers with dengue hemorrhagic fever or dengue shock syndrome and mothers of infants with pyrexia of unknown origin. The mean titers of hemagglutination inhibition, neutralization, and infection-enhancing activities against dengue 2 virus were not statistically different among the three groups. However, among infants who developed dengue hemorrhagic fever/dengue shock syndrome there was a strong correlation between the mothers' dengue 2 neutralizing titers and infant age at the time of onset of severe illness, where no such correlation was found among the other two groups. Furthermore, the actual age at which dengue hemorrhagic fever/dengue shock syndrome occurred in each infant correlated with the age at which maximum enhancing activity for dengue 2 infection in mononuclear phagocytes was predicted. This critical time for the occurrence of dengue hemorrhagic fever/dengue shock syndrome was observed to be approximately 2 months after the time calculated for maternal dengue 2 neutralizing antibodies to degrade below a protective level. In addition, sera of mothers of infants with dengue hemorrhagic fever/dengue shock syndrome enhanced dengue 2 virus infection to a slightly greater degree than did sera from mothers of infants with pyrexia of unknown origin and toddlers with dengue hemorrhagic fever/dengue shock syndrome. These data are consistent with the hypothesis that maternal dengue antibodies play a dual role by first protecting and later increasing the risk of development of dengue hemorrhagic fever/dengue shock syndrome in infants who become infected by dengue 2 virus.