Some labile cell types whose numbers are normally controlled through programmed cell death are subject to markedly increased destruction during some severe infections. Lymphocytes, in particular, undergo massive and apparently unregulated apoptosis in human patients and laboratory animals with sepsis, potentially playing a major role in the severe immunosuppression that characterizes the terminal phase of fatal illness. Extensive lymphocyte apoptosis has also occurred in humans and animals infected with several exotic agents, including Bacillus anthracis, the cause of anthrax; Yersinia pestis, the cause of plague; and Ebola virus. Prevention of lymphocyte apoptosis, through either genetic modification of the host or treatment with specific inhibitors, markedly improves survival in murine sepsis models. These findings suggest that interventions aimed at reducing the extent of immune cell apoptosis could improve outcomes for a variety of severe human infections, including those caused by emerging pathogens and bioterrorism agents.