OBJECTIVES On 12 May 2008, an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.0 on the Richter scale struck in Sichuan province, China. After the disaster, approximately 5 million people were living in temporary shelters. The objectives of this study were: (1) to provide the basic information on public health outcomes among the survivors; (2) to compare these outcomes between counties affected to differing extents by the earthquake; and (3) to identify important policies and programmes associated with public health outcomes. STUDY DESIGN Cross-sectional multicluster sample surveys were employed using data collected from two counties. METHODS Cross-sectional surveys were conducted in August 2008 in two counties in Sichuan province. The study outcomes [physical component summary (PCS) and mental component summary (MCS)] were measured using Short Form-12. Independent demographic, socio-economic and trauma exposure variables were also measured. Multivariate regression analysis was conducted to investigate associations between the independent variables and PCS and MCS outcomes. RESULTS In total, 3862 interviews were completed in the two counties. The mean PCS score was 37.6 [95% confidence interval (95% CI 35.13-41.97) in Beichuan county and 45.4 (95% CI 44.30-45.95) in Langzhong county. MCS scores were 36.8 (95% CI 33.61-40.71) in Beichuan county and 49.6 (95% CI 49.69-50.01) in Langzhong county, well below the instrument norm of 50. Variables with negative associations with physical or mental health included: female gender, living in a temporary shelter, higher income, deaths among family/friends, family property damaged and illness within the past 2 weeks. Higher frequencies of trauma exposure (more than six trauma exposure events) showed a strong significant negative association with PCS and MCS in both counties. CONCLUSIONS Interventions should be designed to focus on people without a household income (or a lower income), living in shelters or temporary houses. Governments should support income-generating activities and improve living conditions and public health status.