More than 42 million people worldwide are now infected with HIV, in spite of sustained prevention activities. Although the spread of HIV has been primarily sexual, epidemiological studies have indicated that the efficiency of the spread of HIV is poor, perhaps as infrequently as 1 in every 1,000 episodes of sexual intercourse. However, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that cause ulcers or inflammation greatly increase the efficiency of HIV transmission--by increasing both the infectiousness of, and the susceptibility to HIV infection. STDs might be particularly important in the early stages of a localized HIV epidemic, when people with risky sexual behaviour are most likely to become infected. In China, eastern Europe and Russia, there has been a remarkable increase in the incidence of STDs in recent years, and this is reflected in the rapid increase in the spread of HIV in these areas. Targeted STD detection and treatment should have a central role in HIV prevention in these emerging epidemics.