We offer an approximation to central confidence intervals for directly standardized rates, where we assume that the rates are distributed as a weighted sum of independent Poisson random variables. Like a recent method proposed by Dobson, Kuulasmaa, Eberle and Scherer, our method gives exact intervals whenever the standard population is proportional to the study population. In cases where the two populations differ non-proportionally, we show through simulation that our method is conservative while other methods (the Dobson et al. method and the approximate bootstrap confidence method) can be liberal. © 1997 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.