Monocyte-derived macrophages from 14 patients with lepromatous leprosy respond to rIFN-gamma with an enhanced secretion of H2O2 in a fashion similar to that of cells obtained from normal donors. The activation is not dependent on the cutaneous bacterial index, the length of treatment, or the stage and activity of the disease. H2O2 release can be triggered in these cells both by phorbol myristate acetate and by intact irradiated Mycobacterium leprae. Uptake of M. leprae by both normal donors' and patients' macrophages is proportional to the number of bacilli added. Prior ingestion of M. leprae does not interfere with the ability of macrophages to respond to IFN-gamma by the production of oxygen intermediates. We conclude that the immune defect in lepromatous leprosy probably results from a lack of response to M. leprae by the patients' T cells rather than an inability of mononuclear phagocytes to respond to IFN-gamma.