Plasma levels of interleukin 12 (IL-12), a cytokine consisting of two different polypeptide subunits (p40 and p35), were measured together with interferon gamma (IFN-gamma) and other cytokines in 46 children with septic shock and purpura. The median (range) plasma IL-12 p40 level on admission was 457 (244-2677) pg/ml in non-survivors vs 189 (< 40-521) pg/ml in survivors (P = < 0.001). IL-12 p70 levels were elevated in only nine patients. IL-12 p40 plasma levels were positively correlated with tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), IL-6, IL-8, IL-10 and PRISM-score, whereas they were negatively correlated with C-reactive protein (CRP), whole blood cell (WBC) and serum glucose levels. Twelve (29%) of the patients had detectable levels of IFN-gamma. Thus, circulating levels of IL-12 p40 and to a lesser extent those of IL-12 p70, are elevated in children with septic shock and purpura, and correlate with severity of disease and outcome.