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To investigate the molecular epidemiology and genetic structure of the virus strain(s) causing an outbreak of HIV-1 infection in the Kaliningrad province of the Russian Federation and to investigate the relationship of this outbreak to some other emerging HIV-1 epidemics in the countries of the former Soviet Union.A molecular epidemiological investigation was conducted in the city of Kaliningrad amongst individuals recently diagnosed as HIV-1-positive. Samples were also collected from neighbouring Lithuania and from the Ukraine.Incident and population data was collected from official health statistics in Kaliningrad. A standardized questionnaire was administered to newly diagnosed individuals to assess risk factors for HIV-1 infection. For genotyping, two regions of the virus (env C2-V3 and gag NCp7) were directly sequenced.The number of newly diagnosed individuals testing seropositive for HIV-1 infection in Kaliningrad rose from less than one per month to more than 100 per month during the period of July-October 1996. A total of 1335 new infections were identified between 1 July 1996 and 30 June 1997. The main reported risk factor for HIV-1 infection (80%) was injecting drug use, in particular with a locally produced opiate. Sequence analysis of patient viruses in Kaliningrad (n = 50) showed that the epidemic was caused by a highly homogenous HIV-1 strain, recombinant between the genetic subtypes A and B. Comparison with subtype A strains prevalent amongst injecting drug users (IDU) in the Ukraine showed that one of these strains was the direct subtype A parent of the epidemic A/B recombinant strain in Kaliningrad.The HIV-1 epidemic in Kaliningrad probably started from a single source, with rapid spread of the virus through the IDU population. The origin of the epidemic strain is a recombination event occurring between the subtype A strain virus prevalent among IDU in some southern CIS countries, and a subtype B strain of unknown origin.