Asthma has emerged as an important public health problem in many Latin American countries over the past decade. In Brazil and Costa Rica, the prevalence of asthma and associated morbidity is as great or greater as reported in traditional high prevalence countries such as the US, but remains neglected as a public health priority. Asthma in Latin America is associated particularly with underprivileged populations living in cities but remains relatively rare in many rural populations. The causes of asthma in Latin America are likely to be associated with urbanization, migration, and the adoption of a modern 'Westernized' lifestyle and environmental changes that follow these processes that include changes in diet, physical activity, hygiene, and exposures to allergens, irritants, and outdoor and indoor pollutants. Because of the enormous social, genetic, and environmental contrasts within and between Latin American countries, and the large differences in prevalence associated with these differences, the investigation of asthma in Latin America provides important research opportunities to identify the social and biological mechanisms that underlie asthma development. Asthma in Latin America poses enormous challenges for health policy makers, health services, and researchers to respond to and alleviate the growing burden of asthma disability, particularly among marginalized urban populations.