OBJECTIVE: To describe the epidemiology of infection with the human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) in Victoria from 1980 to 1991. DESIGN: Data on HIV-1 infection in Victoria, obtained through routine laboratory-based surveillance, were entered in a database. Missing information was sought by contacting the referring doctor where possible. SETTING: In Victoria, the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is notifiable to Health Department Victoria by diagnosing doctors, and laboratories are required to notify new diagnoses of HIV-1 infection, without identifiers. All confirmatory testing for HIV-1 has taken place at the State HIV Reference Laboratory at Fairfield Hospital. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Diagnoses of HIV-1 infection, as confirmed at the State HIV Reference Laboratory by western blot immunoassay, and notifications of AIDS to Health Department Victoria. RESULTS: Over six years the annual number of diagnoses of HIV-1 infection in Victoria remained constant despite a substantial increase in the number of tests performed. To the end of 1991, 2679 people had been diagnosed with HIV-1 infection, 686 of whom had developed AIDS. Information on exposure was available for 2379 (88.8%). Homosexual and bisexual men made up 75.5% (85.0% of those for whom exposure had been ascertained); 3.4% were female or heterosexual male injecting drug users; and 3.7% were heterosexuals with no history of injecting drug use. The latter two groups contributed 2.0% in 1985 to the proportion of all new diagnoses for which exposure was known, and 14.3% in 1991; for recipients of contaminated blood or blood products before 1985 this proportion fell from 12.4% to 1.0%. The cumulative incidence of HIV-1 diagnoses was highest in the age group 25-29 years, and 20% of all HIV-1 infected people were under 25 at the time of diagnosis. In 1991, 81 of the 311 people who had been diagnosed with HIV-1 infection had had previous negative or indeterminate results of tests; half of these had acquired infection in the previous year. CONCLUSION: Most HIV-1 infections in Victoria have been acquired through male homosexual contact, with a small but increasing proportion of diagnoses occurring in heterosexuals. Laboratory-based surveillance of voluntary testing, despite its limitations, has provided valuable information on the extent of the HIV-1 epidemic in Victoria. Surveillance of all HIV-1 test results and of seroconverters now supplements routine surveillance of HIV diagnoses and will ensure a more accurate picture of the epidemic in coming years.