We present a method of estimating HIV incidence rates in epidemic situations from data on age-specific prevalence and changes in the overall prevalence over time. The method is applied to women attending antenatal clinics in Hlabisa, a rural district of KwaZulu/Natal, South Africa, where transmission of HIV is overwhelmingly through heterosexual contact. A model which gives age-specific prevalence rates in the presence of a progressing epidemic is fitted to prevalence data for 1998 using maximum likelihood methods and used to derive the age-specific incidence. Error estimates are obtained using a Monte Carlo procedure. Although the method is quite general some simplifying assumptions are made concerning the form of the risk function and sensitivity analyses are performed to explore the importance of these assumptions. The analysis shows that in 1998 the annual incidence of infection per susceptible woman increased from 5.4 per cent (3.3-8.5 per cent; here and elsewhere ranges give 95 per cent confidence limits) at age 15 years to 24.5 per cent (20.6-29.1 per cent) at age 22 years and declined to 1.3 per cent (0.5-2.9 per cent) at age 50 years; standardized to a uniform age distribution, the overall incidence per susceptible woman aged 15 to 59 was 11.4 per cent (10.0-13.1 per cent); per women in the population it was 8.4 per cent (7.3-9.5 per cent). Standardized to the age distribution of the female population the average incidence per woman was 9.6 per cent (8.4-11.0 per cent); standardized to the age distribution of women attending antenatal clinics, it was 11.3 per cent (9.8-13.3 per cent). The estimated incidence depends on the values used for the epidemic growth rate and the AIDS related mortality. To ensure that, for this population, errors in these two parameters change the age specific estimates of the annual incidence by less than the standard deviation of the estimates of the age specific incidence, the AIDS related mortality should be known to within ±50 per cent and the epidemic growth rate to within ±25 per cent, both of which conditions are met. In the absence of cohort studies to measure the incidence of HIV infection directly, useful estimates of the age-specific incidence can be obtained from cross-sectional, age-specific prevalence data and repeat cross-sectional data on the overall prevalence of HIV infection. Several assumptions were made because of the lack of data but sensitivity analyses show that they are unlikely to affect the overall estimates significantly. These estimates are important in assessing the magnitude of the public health problem, for designing vaccine trials and for evaluating the impact of interventions.