We investigate the relationship between the microfilarial density in the skin and the burden of adult female Onchocerca volvulus by analysing pre-control nodulectomy data which allow for a direct approach, independent of exposure. The data of 169 patients in Burkina Faso and 182 patients in Liberia represent savannah and forest onchocerciasis in West Africa, respectively. Whereas in Burkina Faso, a saturating relationship between microfilarial density and worm burden suggests the operation of density-dependent processes within human hosts, the Liberian data show a linear relationship implying no density dependence. The differences may derive from differences between both parasite strains, i.e. the savannah or the forest strain of O. volvulus. Consistently for both parasite strains and independent of the worm burden, the microfilarial density increases with host age emphasising the concept of the acquisition of immunological tolerance. In male hosts in Liberia, the microfilarial density increases stronger with the worm burden than in female hosts, whereas such sex-specific differences cannot be found in Burkina Faso. In the methodological part of this investigation, we suggest the beta-distribution to be most appropriate for describing variability in microfilarial densities and we present an approach to consider the uncertainty in the adult parasite burden which cannot be determined precisely in helminth infections. Implications of density dependence are discussed with respect to immunological processes in the human host and with respect to the success of control programs. The relationships described show that regulatory processes between the parasite and the human host are multi-dimensional, operating within a high degree of biological variability.