Hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) is a rare, often fatal, disease of early infancy. The diagnosis of HLH is frequently delayed or made at autopsy because no genetic or biologic marker has been identified. To improve the classification and treatment of HLH, the Histiocyte Society has established an 'International Registry for HLH'. Data collected included family history, clinical and laboratory features at the onset of illness, and treatment outcome. Stringent diagnostic criteria (ie fever, splenomegaly, cytopenia, hypertriglyceridemia, and/or hypofibrinogenemia, and hemophagocytosis without evidence of malignancy) were used for patient selection. One hundred and twenty-two patients (61 males, 61 females) were enrolled from 17 centers in 11 countries. The rate of parental consanguinity was 24%. A positive family history was reported in 49% of cases including two pairs of affected male twins. The median age at disease onset was 2.9 months, with no difference between familial and sporadic cases. Age at onset was similar in affected sibs from 10 of 14 families, but in four up to 3-year differences were observed. Hemophagocytosis was present at diagnosis in 75%. An associated infection (usually by common viral pathogens) was reported in 50 of the 122 (41%) cases, of which 25 had familial disease. Natural killer activity was impaired in 36 of 37 patients studied. Chromosome analysis was normal in all tested patients. A decreased frequency of HLA-B7 and B8 alleles and increased frequency of HLA-B21 and DQ3 were observed. The estimated 5-year survival (SE) was 21% (18.7) for all patients. It was 66% (37.8) for patients who received allogeneic bone marrow transplant and 10.1% (9.6) for patients treated with chemotherapy alone (P=0.0001). None of the previously proposed prognostic indicators (age, associated infection, cerebrospinal fluid pleocytosis, family history) correlated with treatment outcome.