Dengue is the most important arthropod-borne viral disease of public health significance. Compared with nine reporting countries in the 1950s, today the geographic distribution includes more than 100 countries worldwide. Many of these had not reported dengue for 20 or more years and several have no known history of the disease. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 2.5 billion people are at risk of dengue infection. First recognised in the 1950s, it has become a leading cause of child mortality in several Asian and South American countries.This paper reviews the changing epidemiology of the disease, focusing on host and societal factors and drawing on national and regional journals as well as international publications. It does not include vaccine and vector issues. We have selected areas where the literature raises challenges to prevailing views and those that are key for improved service delivery in poor countries.Shifts in modal age, rural spread, and social and biological determinants of race- and sex-related susceptibility have major implications for health services. Behavioural risk factors, individual determinants of outcome and leading indicators of severe illness are poorly understood, compromising effectiveness of control programmes. Early detection and case management practices were noted as a critical factor for survival. Inadequacy of sound statistical methods compromised conclusions on case fatality or disease-specific mortality rates, especially since the data were often based on hospitalised patients who actively sought care in tertiary centres.Well-targeted operational research, such as population-based epidemiological studies with clear operational objectives, is urgently needed to make progress in control and prevention.