Rhodococcus equi, an unusual gram positive aerobic actinomycete, was first described as a respiratory pathogen of livestock in 1923. Reports of human clinical illness have emphasized R. equi as a cause of invasive pulmonary infection in severely immunocompromised patients and, recently, have implicated it as a cause of pneumonia, bacteremia and disseminated infection in HIV-infected patients. To determine the distribution of R. equi we evaluated 107 isolates referred to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) during the period January 1973 through December 1990. The sites of these 107 isolates (101 patient and 6 animal isolates) were: blood (32 isolates), sputum (30), lung tissue (13) and other site (32). Before 1983, when the first R. equi isolate from an HIV-infected patient was received, CDC received a total of 52 patient isolates. In addition, during this 10 year period, R. equi isolates were received from more than one site from only one patient. However, during the two year period 1989-1990, we identified 8 patients with underlying HIV infection and R. equi pneumonia who accounted for 29 of 35 (83%) R. equi patient isolates; 6 of these patients also had bacteremia and three died with disseminated R. equi infection. No isolates were resistant to amoxicillin-clavulanate, ampicillin-sulbactam, gentamicin or imipenem, and few (less than 5%) isolates were resistant to erythromycin, rifampin, tetracycline, and trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole. These results suggest that HIV-infected patients, in particular, are predisposed to develop invasive pulmonary, fatal disseminated R. equi infection (or both), and appropriate antimicrobial susceptibility testing of clinical isolates may improve the effectiveness of therapy of R. equi-infected patients.