The traditional view of HIV-1 infection characterized by the slow decline of CD4+ T cells has radically changed in light of recent observations in rhesus macaques and humans of rapid and extensive infection and removal of memory CD4+ T cells in mucosal tissues within the first three weeks of infection. This initial strike to the immune system seems to be the distinguishing feature of HIV-1 pathogenesis and its extent sets the overall course of the ensuing infection. Qualitatively different mechanisms of CD4+ T-cell depletion prevail during the acute, chronic and advanced phases of infection depending on the availability of the target-cell population and competence of the immune system. The elimination of CD4+ T cells in mucosal lymphoid tissues results in the absence of important regulatory and effector functions that these cells normally perform in controlling immune responses to environmental antigens and pathogens. Ablation of acute HIV-1 viremia limits the initial damage to the CD4+ T-cell compartment and helps to establish a state of equilibrium between the replicating virus, the availability of the target-cell population and the immune control characteristic of long-term non-progression. © 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.