Infection with a variant of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIVsmm/PBj-14) causes death in juvenile pigtailed macaques within 8 days of infection. The primary pathology is localized to the lymphoid tissues of the gut and spleen. Although the virus is present, the lesions are most consistent with acute reactive inflammation. We studied the serum and tissues for evidence of acute cytokine production often associated with acute inflammation. One factor, IL-6, was found to be significantly increased (> 1000-fold) over all other measured cytokines in all the pigtailed macaques who died acutely. Increased levels of IL-6 were found both in the serum and in the inflamed tissues. mRNA for IL-6 was found in the tissues with the highest protein levels of IL-6. The marked increase in IL-6 and IL-6 mRNA correlated with the virus levels in the tissues and serum as determined by viral isolation, immunohistochemistry, and Northern blot analysis. These findings suggest that the underlying pathogenesis of primary tissue damage, necrosis, and death by PBj-14 is the induction of cytokine production. Although the presence of the virus may be critical for the initiation of these events, the intense inflammatory reaction is associated with the cause of death.