Abstract: Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) has been recognized as a serious viral disease of poultry since 1878. The number of outbreaks of this disease globally has increased in the past 10 years culminating in 2004 with the unprecedented outbreak of H5N1 HPAI involving nine countries in East and South East Asia. Apart from the geographical extent of this outbreak and apparent rapid spread, this epidemic has a number of unique features, among which is the carriage of highly pathogenic AI viruses by asymptomatic domestic waterfowl. When this disease first emerged it was recognized almost simultaneously in a number of countries for the first time. This created considerable concern among both veterinary and public health authorities especially as the virus was also shown to cause fatal disease in humans. This article brings together a range of information on H5N1 HPAI viruses in Asia that were collected by FAO during the past year through field projects and explores possible reasons for the emergence of the disease in late 2003 and early 2004. Key epidemiological features of the disease in different Asian countries are described in an attempt to look for, and where possible, explain similarities and differences. This includes assessment of factors that could have contributed to the spread of the disease. Molecular aspects of the viruses are examined to assess relationships between isolates from different locations and times so as to gain insights into the origins of viruses in various countries. It is apparent that the coincidence and grouping of the reports declaring the outbreaks of HPAI did not truly reflect the time course of disease emergence, which was widespread well before the outbreak. The factors that could have led to a change from infection to emergence of widespread disease in 2003–2004 are discussed. There are still some questions that remain unanswered regarding the origins of the 2004 outbreak. This article does not provide answers to all of these, but brings together what is currently known about these outbreaks and the viruses that have caused them.