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To compare the rates and clinical features of herpes zoster in HIV-positive and HIV-negative individuals in a cohort in rural Uganda; to report the incidence of herpes zoster in the HIV-positive group in relation to seroconversion and CD4 cell counts and to determine whether it is indicative of a more rapid progression to death.A prospective population-based cohort.The cohort comprised 107 prevalent and 144 incident (with documented dates of seroconversion) participants with HIV infection and 231 HIV-negative controls who were reviewed routinely every 3 months.The mean rate of herpes zoster was 53.6/1000 person-years in HIV-positive and 4.4 in HIV-negative participants. The cumulative incidence of a first episode of herpes zoster was 7.6% at 2 years, 12.6% at 4 years and 24.0% at 6 years after seroconversion; the incidence rate was 35.6/1000 person-years. There was no evidence of a significant effect of age, gender, period from seroconversion or CD4 cell count on this incidence rate. Herpes zoster was an indicator of HIV-1 infection in this population but not an indicator of more rapid progression to death after adjusting for CD4 cell count and age.The rates, including the cumulative incidence after seroconversion and the clinical presentation of herpes zoster, were similar to those reported from industrialized countries. Although an indicator of HIV-1 infection in this population, herpes zoster was unrelated to CD4 cell count or period from seroconversion and did not lead to a faster disease progression.