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To examine the prevalence and the level of awareness, treatment and control of hypertension in different world regions.A literature search of the MEDLINE database, using the Medical Subject Headings prevalence, hypertension, blood pressure and cross-sectional studies, was conducted. Published studies, which reported the prevalence of hypertension and were conducted in representative population samples, were included in the review. The search was restricted to studies published from January 1980 through July 2003.All data were extracted independently by two investigators using a standardized protocol and data collection form.The reported prevalence of hypertension varied around the world, with the lowest prevalence in rural India (3.4% in men and 6.8% in women) and the highest prevalence in Poland (68.9% in men and 72.5% in women). Awareness of hypertension was reported for 46% of the studies and varied from 25.2% in Korea to 75% in Barbados; treatment varied from 10.7% in Mexico to 66% in Barbados and control (blood pressure < 140/90 mmHg while on antihypertensive medication) varied from 5.4% in Korea to 58% in Barbados.Hypertension is an important public health challenge in both economically developing and developed countries. Significant numbers of individuals with hypertension are unaware of their condition and, among those with diagnosed hypertension, treatment is frequently inadequate. Measures are required at a population level to prevent the development of hypertension and to improve awareness, treatment and control of hypertension in the community.