The prevalence of clinical vitamin D deficiency (rickets and osteomalacia) is high in many parts of the world, and there is a resurgence of rickets among children of ethnic minority groups in Europe and Australasia. Plasma 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentration (25OHD) is a useful risk marker of clinical vitamin D deficiency. This review summarizes the factors that contribute to differences in 25OHD among populations and provides an overview of the prevalence of low vitamin D status worldwide. It discusses the controversies that surround the interpretation of 25OHD, other proposed indices of vitamin D adequacy and dietary reference values for vitamin D, and describes the emerging evidence that a very low calcium intake may contribute to the etiology of rickets in Africa and Asia. There is an urgent need for action to address the global burden of rickets and osteomalacia.