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BACKGROUND: A study was undertaken to assess whether the therapeutic aspects of published international asthma management guidelines are practically applicable in developing countries. METHODS: Questionnaires were sent to expatriate doctors working in developing countries. RESULTS: Forty one replies were received from 24 countries in Africa and Asia. Oral salbutamol was prescribed "usually" or "often" by 35 of the 41 respondents, theophyllines by 30, inhaled bronchodilators by 12, inhaled steroids by two, and cromoglycate by two. Theophyllines were locally available in all 41 cases, oral salbutamol in 40, inhaled bronchodilators in 34, and inhaled steroids (usually beclomethasone 50 micrograms) in only 15. Where they were available, the median (range) coat of a beclomethasone 50 micrograms inhaler was 20% (6.8-100%) of average local monthly income, salbutamol inhaler 13% (3.3-250%), 90 salbutamol 4 mg tablets 3.8% (0.8-75%), and 90 aminophylline 100 mg tablets 4.5% (0.5-70%). If they were available locally at a cheaper price, 34 (83%) respondents would prescribe more inhaled steroids and 37 (90%) would prescribe more inhaled bronchodilators. CONCLUSIONS: Many asthma patients in developing countries are not receiving adequate treatment because the required drugs are not available in their area or are prohibitively expensive.