The acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and infection with the human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) constitute a worldwide public health problem. Whereas in Europe and in most of the Americas transmission of HIV-1 has occurred predominantly among homosexual men and intravenous drug abusers, in Africa a distinct epidemiologic pattern has emerged that indicates that HIV-1 infection is mainly heterosexually acquired. Heterosexual transmission appears to be increasing in some parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, and possibly in the United States. In addition to HIV-1, at least one other human retrovirus, namely HIV-2, has been implicated as a cause of AIDS in Africa and Europe. Factors that influence heterosexual transmission of HIV-1 include genital ulcerations, early or late stages of HIV-1 infection in the index case, and possibly oral contraception and immune activation. The rate of perinatal transmission is enhanced when the mother's illness is more advanced. AIDS and HIV-1 infection may have a significant impact not only on public health, but also on the demography and socioeconomic conditions of some developing countries. Programs for the prevention and control of AIDS should be an immediate priority in all countries.