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Surveillance in the era of antiretroviral therapy (ART) requires estimates of HIV prevalence as well as the proportion eligible for ART. We estimated HIV prevalence and assessed field staging of individuals to estimate the burden of HIV disease needing treatment in rural Malawi.Adults aged 18–59 years in a demographic surveillance system were interviewed, examined, and HIV counselled and tested. Staging that used a simplified version of the WHO criteria (‘field checklist’) was compared with staging by a medical assistant using a ‘clinic checklist’ and to CD4 cell results.A total of 2129 of 2303 eligible adults (92.4%) were traced, and 2047 (96.1%) participated. Of the 1443 participants (70.5%) tested, 11.6% were HIV positive. ART eligibility classification by the field and clinic checklists were concordant in 122 of 133 HIV-positive individuals. Compared with the clinic checklist, the field checklist had a sensitivity of 50% and a specificity of 96%. Including those already known to be on ART, staging by the field and clinic checklists estimated ART eligibility at 16.3 and 17.7% of HIV-positive individuals, respectively. Using CD4 cell count under 250 cells/μl or WHO stage III/IV, the Malawi national programme criteria, 38% of HIV-positive individuals were eligible for ART, compared with 31% based on the 2006 WHO criteria of CD4 cell count under 200 cells/μl or WHO stage IV or CD4 cell count of 200–350 cells/μl and WHO stage III.The field checklist was not a suitable tool for individual staging. Criteria for ART eligibility based on clinical staging alone missed two-thirds of those eligible by clinical staging and CD4 cell count.