Since its discovery in 1969, enterovirus 71 (EV71) has been recognised as a frequent cause of epidemics of hand-foot-and-mouth disease (HFMD) associated with severe neurological sequelae in a small proportion of cases. There has been a significant increase in EV71 epidemic activity throughout the Asia-Pacific region since 1997. Recent HFMD epidemics in this region have been associated with a severe form of brainstem encephalitis associated with pulmonary oedema and high case-fatality rates. The emergence of large-scale epidemic activity in the Asia-Pacific region has been associated with the circulation of three genetic lineages that appear to be undergoing rapid evolutionary change. Two of these lineages (B3 and B4) have not been described previously and appear to have arisen from an endemic focus in equatorial Asia, which has served as a source of virus for HFMD epidemics in Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. The third lineage (C2) has previously been identified [Brown, B.A. et al. (1999) J. Virol. 73, 9969-9975] and was primarily responsible for the large HFMD epidemic in Taiwan during 1998. As EV71 appears not to be susceptible to newly developed antiviral agents and a vaccine is not currently available, control of EV71 epidemics through high-level surveillance and public health intervention needs to be maintained and extended throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Future research should focus on (1) understanding the molecular genetics of EV71 virulence, (2) identification of the receptor(s) for EV71, (3) development of antiviral agents to ameliorate the severity of neurological disease and (4) vaccine development to control epidemics. Following the successful experience of the poliomyelitis control programme, it may be possible to control EV71 epidemics if an effective live-attenuated vaccine is developed.