Human alveolar echinococcosis (AE) is a rare and highly pathogenic helminthic zoonosis due to infection with the intermediate stage of the small fox tapeworm, Echinococcus multilocularis. Parasite transmission is restricted to northern latitudes, including central and north China, from where few clinical and no detailed community studies have been reported. In August, 1991, 65 (5%) of 1312 people residing in three rural communes of Zhang County, Gansu Province, China were diagnosed as having hepatic AE after mass ultrasound scanning with serological back-up. This represents one of the highest prevalence rates of AE ever recorded. It is also the first time that mass ultrasound scanning and serology have been used together in an AE endemic region. The region was selected one year earlier, when a preliminary serosurvey on 606 unselected people in the same locality resulted in an 8.8% serum antibody positive rate with a 76% rate of confirmation of hepatic AE in 37 individuals who could be followed up in 1991. Seropositivity rates varied for villages between 0 and 20.5%. Overall, females (7.8%) had a significantly greater risk of infection than males (2.5%), especially in the 31-50 age group, a difference which may be related to contact with dogs and dog faeces over many years. Age-specific prevalence of AE increased from 0% in the under 5-year group to 8.2% in those aged 31-50. The youngest case was 11 years and the mean age of diagnosis was 40 years. Adult tapeworms of E multilocularis were identified from the small intestines of 10% of domestic dogs. Sylvatic animal hosts of the parasite have not yet been identified. The high prevalence of human AE in this region of central China is most probably due to semi-domestic transmission of E multilocularis between wild rodents and dogs, together with the poverty and poor hygiene in these rural communities.