Eight clinical isolates of vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium (VRE) were obtained from four renal and four other in-patients within an 11 week period during 1992. Characterisation of the isolates by restriction enzyme analysis with Sal I and rRNA gene restriction patterns (ribotyping) showed them to be clonally related. During the next 3 months an additional 14 VRE were isolated from hospital patients, nine of which were indistinguishable by ribotyping from the strain associated with the outbreak. An epidemiological survey was instigated in order to determine the level of carriage of this VRE. A total of 354 stool specimens was screened using a highly selective enrichment broth. VRE were detected in the stools of 11/73 (15%) of renal patients, 5/97 (5%) of other hospital patients and 3/184 (2%) of patients based in the community. Of the 25 stool isolates that were further characterised by ribotyping, 17 were indistinguishable from the outbreak strain. The remaining eight isolates gave seven different patterns. Patients harbouring the outbreak strain stayed in hospital significantly longer and had received more antibiotic treatment, for longer, than those patients from whom other VRE had been isolated. There was no significant difference in vancomycin or cephalosporin usage between the two groups of patients. Ribotyping showed there to be a number of clones of VRE carried by patients and that one of these clones was especially prevalent and has been responsible for the outbreak of infection in the renal unit. The technique also showed the presence of different VRE in general practice patients suggesting they are not just a hospital phenomenon.