To investigate whether low CD4+ T-cell counts in healthy and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-infected Ethiopians influence tuberculosis (TB) immunological memory, tuberculin skin test (TST) conversion and reactivity rates were investigated among adults with and without HIV infection in urban settings in Ethiopia. Reaction to the TST was analyzed with purified protein derivative by the Mantoux technique. A total of 1,286 individuals with TST results of > or = 5-mm (n = 851) and < or = 4-mm (n = 435) induration diameters were included. Individuals with < or = 4-mm induration sizes were followed up for 21.4 +/- 9.5 months (mean +/- standard deviation) to observe skin test conversion. The overall TST reactivity (> or = 5-mm induration diameter) was 66.2% (n = 851). Reactivity was significantly lower among HIV-positive persons (40.5%) than among HIV-negative persons (68.7%) (P < 0.001). Of the above persons, 32 incident TB patients were checked for their TST status 13.05 +/- 11.1 months before diagnosis and reactivity was found among 22 (68.7%) of them. Of the TST-negative persons with 0- to 4-mm indurations who were followed up for 3 years, the conversion rate to positivity was 17.9/100 person-years of observation (PYO) (14.4/100 PYO and 18.3/100 PYO in HIV-positive and -negative persons, respectively). Despite lower absolute CD4+ T-cell numbers in Ethiopians, higher TST conversion and reactivity rates show the presence of a higher rate of latent TB infection and/or transmission. The lower TST positivity rate before a diagnosis of TB disease showed the lower sensitivity of the test. This indicates the need for other sensitive and specific diagnostic and screening methods to detect TB infection, particularly among HIV-positive persons, so that they can be given prophylactic isoniazid therapy.