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Our knowledge of the disease burden components of tropical populations is fragmentary. Historically, the infectious diseases have been emphasized but, as some populations have undergone socio-economic changes, vital statistics have described a change in the pattern of disease. The picture is of a decline in infectious and a rise in chronic non-communicable disease. We focus here on the emergence of chronic cardiovascular diseases, and use hypertension as the paradigmic example.Early blood pressure surveys showed a virtual absence of hypertension among rural Africans and moderate prevalences in the Caribbean. Prevalence was highest among US and UK blacks. In a recent comparative study of blood pressure and its determinants in Nigeria, Jamaica and the US there was a steep gradient in prevalence from 15% through 26% to 33%. Body mass index and salt intake were the major determinants, accounting for 70% of the variance in hypertension prevalence. Additional information on mechanism comes from the exploration of the renin-angiotensin system across these populations. Angiotensinogen levels rise steadily from Africa to the US and are modestly associated with body mass index (BMI), and even more modestly with polymorphisms of the angiotensinogen gene. 30% of the variation in angiotensin-converting enzyme levels is attributable to the insertion/deletion polymorphism, and angiotensin-converting enzyme levels are modestly related to BMI and blood pressure. Thus, the steep gradient in prevalence is not attributable to the genetics as manifested in the renin-angiotensin system.The usefulness of these and other data on cardiovascular diseases include planning for primordial prevention in Africa and amelioration of existing epidemics in the Caribbean, the US and the UK. Additional long term surveillance data to define the burden and distribution of causes are necessary in Africa. Lastly, education and advocacy to transfer the information to policy makers and planners is required.