We compared interleukin-12 (IL-12) and other cytokine activities during and after an acute clinical episode in a matched-pair case-control study of young African children who presented with either mild or severe Plasmodium falciparum malaria. The acute-phase, pretreatment plasma IL-12 and alpha interferon (IFN-α) levels, as well as the acute-phase mitogen-stimulated whole-blood production capacity of IL-12, were significantly lower in children with severe rather than mild malaria. IL-12 levels, in addition, showed strong inverse correlations both with parasitemia and with the numbers of circulating malaria pigment-containing neutrophils. Acute-phase plasma tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and IL-10 levels were significantly higher in those with severe malaria, and the concentrations of both of these cytokines were positively correlated both with parasitemia and with the numbers of pigment-containing phagocytes in the blood. Children with severe anemia had the highest levels of TNF in plasma. In all the children, the levels in plasma and production capacities of all cytokines normalized when they were healthy and parasite free. The results indicate that severe but not mild P. falciparum malaria in young, nonimmune African children is characterized by down-regulated IL-12 activity, contrasting markedly with the up-regulation of both TNF and IL-10 in the same children. A combination of disturbed phagocyte functions resulting from hemozoin consumption, along with reduced IFN-γ responses, may contribute to these differential effects.