WHO and UNAIDS have consistently promoted HIV counselling as a routine part of HIV testing in developing countries. Nevertheless, in many countries counselling is not considered a crucial accompaniment of testing services, and patients are tested without access to counselling during and after testing. Thus, information on the need for and results of counselling is needed to convince policy-makers and service managers to give greater priority to the development of counselling services. This qualitative study describes informational, social and emotional needs and problems of newly diagnosed seropositive patients attending public health services in Zimbabwe. Their basic factual information on HIV/AIDS was reasonable, but many patients equalled HIV to AIDS and conceptualized their infection as ‘social and physical death’. This seriously impeded their capacity to use knowledge of their test results in a constructive way, and stimulated coping by denial and/or secrecy about their HIV status. These avoidant coping strategies discouraged clients from using condoms, seeking social support and taking measures to protect their vulnerable health. The complex and changing nature of clients' needs indicates that common short-cuts in counselling (e.g. giving brief information before and after the HIV test) are seriously flawed as a strategy to prepare clients for effective coping. Comprehensive pre- and post-test counselling are an essential preparation for coping effectively during and immediately after testing. Availability of supportive counselling beyond this first phase is essential to assist clients with needs and problems which will appear over time. Development of counselling interventions should be guided by research into their effectiveness and by national policy guidelines. Replacing fear-inducing HIV campaigns with interactive, constructive information about HIV prevention and care will increase the preparedness of the community as a whole for effective living with HIV.