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BACKGROUND: The recognition that sexually transmitted infections (STI) facilitate HIV transmission among heterosexuals has led to a rejuvenated focus on improving STI control as a component of HIV prevention programmes in developing countries. While efforts so far have focused mainly on all STI, there is increasing evidence that genital ulcers facilitate a considerable proportion of HIV transmission among heterosexuals and that this effect has been underestimated. This paper focuses on the epidemiology of genital herpes in developing countries past and present. OBJECTIVES: To review the scientific literature about the epidemiology of genital herpes in developing countries and discuss the implications of the findings for STI control and HIV prevention programmes. SEARCH METHODOLOGY: A Medline search for June 1966 to August 1999 using the keywords, genital herpes, STD and developing countries, and genital ulcers in MeSH and free text. Abstract books from recent international AIDS conferences and other international STD conferences were reviewed. The annual reports of the medical officers of heath for Harare 1982-1998 and Durban 1989-1997 were reviewed to detect trends in genital herpes diagnoses. FINDINGS: Genital herpes, formerly regarded as a minor STI in most developing countries, has now emerged as a leading cause of genital ulceration in many countries where syphilis and chancroid were more prevalent previously. This increased recognition of genital herpes reflects both a change in the pattern of STI epidemiology through a decline in syphilis and chancroid as a response to HIV control programmes and improved techniques for diagnosing herpetic infection. Countries with significant heterosexual HIV epidemics also appear to have rapidly increasing numbers of genital herpes cases. CONCLUSIONS: The emergence of this herpes epidemic must be addressed through innovative strategies that will be viable, sustainable, acceptable, and effective in developing countries. In countries where genital herpes is a significant problem, local adaptation of WHO treatment algorithms should be made. STI service providers should be trained about issues around the transmission of herpes and how best to advise clients about dealing with, and recognising, recurrences. The effectiveness of antiviral treatment for genital herpes should be investigated in core groups at high risk of HIV.