The aim of this study was to determine the aetiology and outcome of severe community-acquired pneumonia, and to assess whether the existing guidelines for initial antimicrobial therapy are being applied. The records of 57 consecutive nonimmunocompromised patients admitted to the medical intensive care unit (ICU) between January 1989 and May 1993 with this diagnosis were reviewed. The microbiological data, chest radiographic changes and outcome were analysed. Nine (16%) of the 57 patients had pulmonary tuberculosis. When these patients were excluded from further analysis, a microbiological diagnosis was made in 41 (72%) cases. The most commonest pathogens were Burkholderia pseudomallei (n=10), Klebsiella spp. (n=5) and Staphylococcus aureus (n=5), Mycoplasma pneumoniae (n=4) and Streptococcus pneumoniae (n=2) were less common. This microbiological spectrum was quite different from that in the West, where the incidence of S. pneumoniae was higher. Also, when pulmonary tuberculosis was excluded, the mortality (67%) was much higher than that in other series. This was attributed to the high incidence of unrecognized B. pseudomallei infection, which is associated with a very high mortality in the region under study. In addition to applying published guidelines on severe community-acquired pneumonia, the endemicity of certain organisms such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Burkholderia pseudomallei in different geographical regions needs to be considered when choosing initial empirical antimicrobial therapy.