Normal human premenopausal cervical tissue has been used to derive primary cell populations and to establish ex vivo organ culture systems to study infections with herpes simplex virus (HSV-1 or HSV-2) and human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1). Infection with either HSV-1 or HSV-2 rapidly induced multinuclear giant cell formation and widespread damage in mucosal epithelial cells. Subsequent exposure of the damaged mucosal surfaces to HIV-1 revealed frequent co-localization of HSV and HIV-1 antigens. The short-term organ culture system provides direct experimental support for the epidemiological findings that pre-existing sexually transmitted infections, including primary and recurrent herpes virus infections at mucosal surfaces, represent major risk factors for acquisition of primary HIV-1 infection. Epithelial damage in combination with pre-existing inflammation, as described here for overtly normal human premenopausal cervix, creates a highly susceptible environment for the initiation and establishment of primary HIV-1 infection in the sub-mucosa of the cervical transformation zone.