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OBJECTIVE--To review the histories of children with bilateral renal scarring and severe vesicoureteric reflux to determine whether an improvement in early management might reduce the risk of scarring. DESIGN--Retrospective study of medical records and discussion with parents. SETTING--Outpatient departments of two teaching hospitals. PATIENTS--52 children aged 1-12 years participating in a randomised comparison of medical and surgical management. All had a history of symptomatic urinary tract infection. Two thirds presented with fever and two with hypertension or renal failure. In only one out of 32 children examined by antenatal ultrasonography was an abnormality suspected. RESULTS--There was delay in diagnosis or appropriate imaging or effective treatment of urinary infection in 50 of the 52 children. In 41 there was delay in diagnosis; there was delay in treating a confirmed infection in 45; no antibacterial prophylaxis was prescribed before imaging in 28; and investigation of the urinary tract was delayed in 33. The severity of scarring was significantly related to delay in diagnosis (chi 2 for trend 7.43, P = 0.01). Four children of mothers known to have reflux nephropathy were not investigated until they developed urinary tract infection. CONCLUSIONS--Efforts to reduce the incidence and severity of renal scarring should be directed towards rapid diagnosis and effective early management of urinary tract infection in infancy and childhood. Siblings and offspring of known patients with severe reflux nephropathy should be investigated for reflux.