Ribavirin, a broad spectrum, non-interferon-inducing virustatic chemotherapeutic agent, demonstrates activity against a wide range of RNA and DNA viruses, including the retrovirus known to cause the acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The drug's proposed mechanism of action, as well as pharmacokinetics are discussed, and preclinical toxicity, safety and clinical efficacy studies are presented. To date, the best success has occurred in the use of ribavirin to treat respiratory syncytial virus infection in infants and young children and to treat influenza A and B virus infections in young adults. Viral infections, particularly viral pneumonia, are often life-threatening in infants with severe combined immunodeficiency disease (SCID), and ribavirin aerosol has been used successfully to treat respiratory syncytial virus and parainfluenza virus infection of immunodeficient children. Special note is taken of ribavirin's clinical benefit in treating severe and life-threatening infections caused by the Lassa fever virus and the significant improvement over either the use of immune plasma or supportive therapy alone. Indeed, ribavirin thus emerges as the first antiviral drug that is able to reduce mortality in a highly lethal systemic disease by more than 90%. Additional studies demonstrate the drug's efficacy in acute viral hepatitis, herpesvirus infections, and measles. Controlled clinical trials are underway to test the drug in patients infected with the AIDS virus.