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The incidence of Plasmodium falciparum infection has been followed in a birth cohort of 71 infants in southern Ghana, an area of perennial malaria transmission. Parasite DNA detection established the presence of a high rate of infection in newborns (13.6%), a low level of infection from two to 26 weeks (1.5-9.7%) and a steadily increasing parasite rate from 26 weeks of age. The median age to first infection was 42 weeks. Five cases of fever (temperature > or = 37.5 degrees C) and parasite density greater than 1,000 parasites/microl of blood, all in children more than 18 weeks of age, were considered possible cases of clinical malaria. The risk of infection was almost three times higher in the wet season than in the dry season and increased significantly from the age of 18 weeks. The level of malaria-specific IgG at birth was positively correlated with risk of infection in children 6-12 months of age, indicating that maternally derived anti-malarial IgG is correlated with exposure to malaria infection. There was no association between malaria-specific IgG at birth and risk of infection in children 0-6 months of age. However, infants do appear to possess mechanisms to limit parasite growth and a role for maternal antibody cannot be ruled out.