Serum bactericidal activity confers protection against meningococcal disease, but it is not known whether vaccine-induced anticapsular antibodies that lack bactericidal activity are protective. We developed an infant rat challenge model using a naturally occurring O-acetylated strain of Neisseria meningitidis group C and a strain that was negative for O acetylation (OAc). Rats 4 to 7 days of age inoculated intraperitoneally (i.p.) with approximately 10(3) CFU of either strain developed \textgreater5 x 10(5) CFU/ml of blood obtained 18 h later. Dilutions of preimmunization sera given i.p. 2 h before the bacterial challenge had no effect on bacteremia, whereas group C anticapsular antibody in sera from adults immunized with meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine conferred complete or partial (\textgreater99\% decrease in CFU per milliliter of blood) protection against the OAc-positive or OAc-negative strain, respectively, at antibody doses as low as 0.04 micro g/rat. Anticapsular antibody at doses fivefold higher (0.18 to 0.2 micro g/rat) in pooled sera from children immunized at a mean age of 2.6 years failed to protect rats, but antibody at the same or fivefold-lower dose in a serum pool from a group of children immunized at 4 years of age gave complete or partial protection. Protective activity was observed with some serum pools that lacked detectable complement-mediated bactericidal activity (titers \textless 1:4) and correlated with increasing antibody avidity. Thus, not only does the magnitude of the group C antibody response to meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine increase with increasing age but there are also age-related affects on antibody functional activity such that higher serum concentrations of vaccine-induced antibody are required for protection of immunized children than for immunized adults.