BACKGROUND Disseminated tuberculosis (TB) is a major cause of death in patients with the acquired immune-deficiency syndrome (AIDS), but its pathogenesis and clinical features have not been defined prospectively. METHODS Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infected adults with a CD4 count ≥ 200 cells/μl and bacille Calmette-Guérin scar underwent immunologic evaluation and subsequent follow-up. RESULTS Among 20 subjects who developed disseminated TB, baseline tuberculin skin tests were ≥15 mm in 14 (70%) and lymphocyte proliferative responses to Mycobacterium tuberculosis were positive in 14 (70%). At the time of diagnosis, fever ≥2 weeks plus ≥5 kg weight loss was reported in 16 (80%) patients, abnormal chest X-rays in 7/17 (41%), and positive sputum cultures in 10 (50%); median CD4 count was 30 cells/μl (range 1-122). By insertion sequence (IS) 6110 analysis, 14 (70%) blood isolates were clustered and 3/8 (37%) concurrent sputum isolates represented a different strain (polyclonal disease). Empiric TB treatment was given to eight (40%) patients; 11 (55%) died within a month. CONCLUSIONS Disseminated TB in HIV occurs with cellular immune responses indicating prior mycobacterial infection, and IS6110 analysis suggests an often lethal combination of reactivation and newly acquired infection. Control will require effective prevention of both remotely and recently acquired infection, and wider use of empiric therapy in patients with advanced AIDS and prolonged fever.