An attempt was made to assess the true public-health importance of onchocercal skin disease throughout the African region and hence provide an objective basis for the rational planning of onchocerciasis control in the area. The seven collaborative centres that participated in the study (three in Nigeria and one each in Ghana, Cameroon, Tanzania and Uganda) were all in areas of rainforest or savannah-forest mosaic where onchocercal blindness is not common. A cross-sectional dermatological survey was undertaken at each site following a standard protocol. At each site, the aim was to examine at least 750 individuals aged 5 years and living in highly endemic communities and 220-250 individuals aged 5 years and living in a hypo-endemic (control) community. Overall, there were 5459 and 1451 subjects from hyper-and hypo-endemic communities, respectively. In the highly endemic communities, the prevalence of itching increased with age until 20 years and then plateaued, affecting 42% of the population aged 20 years. There was a strong correlation between the prevalence of itching and the level of endemicity (as measured by the prevalence of nodules; r=0.75; P<0.001). The results of a multivariate logistic regression analysis showed that, at the individual level, the presence of onchocercal reactive skin lesions (acute papular onchodermatitis, chronic papular onchodermatitis and/or lichenified onchodermatitis) was the most important risk factor for pruritus, with an odds ratio (OR) of 18.3 and 95% confidence interval (CI) of 15.19-22.04, followed by the presence of palpable onchocercal nodules (OR=4.63; CI=4.05-5.29). In contrast, non-onchocercal skin disease contributed very little to pruritus in the study communities (OR=1.29; CI=1.1-1.51). Onchocercal skin lesions affected 28% of the population in the endemic villages. The commonest type was chronic papular onchodermatitis (13%), followed by depigmentation (10%) and acute papular onchodermatitis (7%). The highest correlation with endemicity was seen for the prevalence of any onchocercal skin lesion and/or pruritus combined (r=0.8; P<0.001). Cutaneous onchocerciasis was found to be a common problem in many endemic areas in Africa which do not have high levels of onchocercal blindness. These findings, together with recent observations that onchocercal skin disease can have major, adverse, psycho-social and socio-economic effects, justify the inclusion of regions with onchocercal skin disease in control programmes based on ivermectin distribution. On the basis of these findings, the World Health Organization launched a control programme for onchocerciasis, the African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control (APOC), that covers 17 endemic countries in Africa.