India has one of the world's highest incidences of oral cancer. The habit of chewing betel quid is widespread and is suspected to play a role in the etiology of this disease. Studies in many other countries have also pointed to a role for human papilloma-viruses (HPVs) in the etiology of some oral cancers. In this study we analyzed biopsies from 91 Indian oral cancer patients, most of whom were betel quid chewers, by PCR amplification and direct DNA sequencing. HPV DNA was detected in 74% of these lesions, of which 41% had multiple HPV infections. Among the lesions from different oral sites, lesions of the tongue had the highest rate (9 of 11) of HPV infection. These HPV prevalences are among the highest ever reported in oral cancers. As to individual HPV types, prevalences of HPV-6, HPV-II, HPV-16 and HPV-18 were 13%, 20%, 42% and 47%, respectively. No additional known or novel HPV types were detected. To understand the unexpectedly high prevalences of the “low-risk” types HPV-6 and HPV-11, we compared the subtypes and variants that were found in oral cancers against those from benign genital warts from the same patient population but found no differences. The high prevalence of HPV in the oral cancers of these Indian patients suggests that viral infection is an important etiological component, with betel quid probably causing additional mutagenic steps in the carcinogenic process. © 1995 Wiley-Liss, Inc.