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The objective of this study was to explore whether the differences in rate of spread of HIV in different regions in sub-Saharan Africa could be explained by differences in sexual behaviour and/or factors influencing the probability of HIV transmission during sexual intercourse.A cross-sectional, population-based study was conducted in two cities with a high HIV prevalence (Kisumu in Kenya and Ndola in Zambia) and two cities with a relatively low HIV prevalence (Cotonou in Benin and Yaoundé in Cameroon). In each of these cities, approximately 1000 men and 1000 women, aged 15-49 years, were randomly selected from the general population. Consenting men and women were interviewed and were tested for HIV, syphilis, herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2), gonorrhoea, chlamydial infection and trichomoniasis (the latter for women only). In addition, a survey was conducted on a random sample of 300 sex workers in each city. The research instruments, including the questionnaires and the laboratory procedures, were standardized to permit comparison of results.The numbers of men interviewed were 1021 in Cotonou, 973 in Yaoundé, 829 in Kisumu, and 720 in Ndola. The corresponding figures for women were 1095, 1116, 1060 and 1130. In Yaoundé, Kisumu and Ndola, the response rates for men were lower than for women due to failure to make contact with eligible men. The proportion of eligible women who were interviewed was 86% in Yaoundé, and 89% in Kisumu and Ndola. In Yaoundé, 76% of eligible men were interviewed, along with 82% in Kisumu and 75% in Ndola.The prevalence of HIV infection in men was 3.3% in Cotonou, 4.1% in Yaoundé, 19.8% in Kisumu and 23.2% in Ndola. For women, the respective figures were 3.4, 7.8, 30.1 and 31.9%. The prevalence of HIV infection among women aged 15-19 years was 23.0% in Kisumu and 15.4% in Ndola. Among women in Kisumu who had their sexual debut 5 years before the interview, the prevalence of HIV infection was 46%; in Ndola, it was 59%. Among sex workers, the prevalence of HIV infection was 57.5% in Cotonou, 34.4% in Yaoundé, 74.7% in Kisumu and 68.7% in Ndola.The HIV prevalence rates in the general population confirmed our preliminary assessment of the level of HIV infection in the four cities, which was based on estimates of HIV prevalence from sentinel surveillance among pregnant women. The very high prevalence of HIV infection among young women in Kisumu and Ndola calls for urgent intervention.