Although the multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) epidemic is a very recent problem, many studies have attempted to understand it. We now have good estimates of the current burden (approximately 500 000 MDR-TB cases worldwide), and following the introduction of potential MDR-TB control strategies projections of these figures are being estimated. The projected trends in tuberculosis (TB) and MDR-TB incidence vary. Risk factors for resistance can be divided into two categories: 1) those facilitating the selection of resistance in the community and 2) the specific conditions that appear to increase some patients' vulnerability to resistance. The epidemiological situation varies greatly across countries, principally due to poor treatment practices and poor implementation of control programmes in the past-and even today, to a lesser degree-and recent data have suggested that national TB programmes that use existing drugs efficiently can postpone and even reverse the MDR-TB epidemic. Other factors that have also contributed to this epidemic situation are analysed in this article. The recognition of factors leading to the epidemic in some regions and the identification of populations at risk will assist in focusing case-finding efforts. From an individual perspective, treatment failures with first-line rifampicin-containing regimens and contacts of MDR-TB cases have the highest rates of resistance. Patients previously treated for TB and the other risk factors analysed in this article should be prioritised in case finding.