The recently failed clinical efficacy trial of an acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) vaccine that elicits antiviral CD8+ T-cell responses has emphasized the challenge of producing an effective vaccine against human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). In the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV)/ rhesus monkey model of AIDS, live-attenuated lentivirus ‘vaccines’ provide the best protection from uncontrolled viral replication and clinical disease after pathogenic SIV challenge. This review summarizes a recent series of studies in which we show that after vaginal SIV challenge of rhesus macaques immunized with an attenuated lentivirus protection from uncontrolled viral replication is primarily mediated by CD8+ T cells in the vaginal mucosa. Immunization with a chimeric simian/human immunodeficiency virus (SHIV) results in a systemic infection that induces a moderate population of SIV-specific CD8+ and CD4+ T cells with cytolytic potential in the vaginal mucosa. Depletion of CD8+ T cells at the time of SIV challenge completely abrogates the protection mediated by prior infection with attenuated SHIV. Further after vaginal SIV challenge, the only significant expansion of SIV-specific T cells occurs in the vagina in these animals. No significant expansion of T-cell responses was observed in systemic lymphoid tissues. Thus, the presence of SIV-specific CD8+ T cells in the vagina on the day of vaginal SIV challenge and a modest expansion of local effector T cells is sufficient to stop uncontrolled SIV replication. It seems that T-cell based vaccine strategies that can elicit mucosal effector CD8+ T-cell populations and avoid inducing systemic T-cell proliferation upon exposure to HIV have the greatest potential for mimicking the success of live-attenuated lentiviral vaccines.