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OBJECTIVE: To report contemporary estimates of the prevalence of knee-related osteoarthritis (OA) outcomes in African Americans and Caucasians aged > or = 45 years. METHODS: Weighted prevalence estimates for knee symptoms, radiographic knee OA, symptomatic knee OA, and severe radiographic knee OA were calculated for age, ethnic, and sex subgroups, in 3018 participants (33% African Americans, 38% men) in the baseline examination (1991-97) of The Johnston County Osteoarthritis Project, a population-based study of OA in North Carolina. Radiographic knee OA was defined as Kellgren-Lawrence radiographic grade > or = 2, severe radiographic knee OA as grades 3 and 4, and symptomatic knee OA as knee symptoms in a knee with radiographic OA. RESULTS: Knee symptoms were present in 43%, 28% had radiographic knee OA, 16% had symptomatic knee OA, and 8% had severe radiographic knee OA. Prevalence was higher in older individuals and women. African Americans had slightly higher prevalence of knee symptoms, radiographic knee OA, and symptomatic knee OA, but significantly higher prevalence of severe radiographic knee OA compared to Caucasians. CONCLUSION: Policy should be directed to increasing education of the public and the medical community about the high prevalence of these conditions, especially in these subgroups, to decrease their impact and ultimately prevent them.