Matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) play an important role in the progression of tumour cells and the invasion of inflammatory cells by degrading the extracellular matrix. In the MMP family, MMP-9 gelatinase is thought to contribute to the pathogenesis of inflammatory arteritis by disrupting the elastic lamina. The aim of the present study is to investigate the potential role of MMP-9 in Kawasaki disease (KD), an acute type of systemic vasculitis in children. We studied the total levels of MMP-9 (free proMMP-9 and free MMP-9) in the sera using a new assay system and the expression of MMP-9 mRNA in the leucocytes using reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction in 18 patients with KD, 10 patients with sepsis and 10 healthy children (HC). The serum MMP-9 levels were significantly higher (P < 0·01) in the acute phase of KD than in the acute phase of sepsis and HC. In the time course of KD, the serum MMP-9 levels decreased significantly (P < 0·01) from the subacute through the convalescent phases. In the acute phase of KD, the serum MMP-9 levels showed a significantly positive correlation (P < 0·05) with the circulating leucocyte counts, especially the neutrophil counts. Furthermore, the expression of MMP-9 mRNA in the circulating leucocytes increased in the acute phase of KD and decreased from the subacute through the convalescent phases. These findings indicate that an excessive amount of MMP-9 is present in the plasma during the acute phase of KD, thus suggesting that circulating leucocytes may be a source of the MMP-9 secreted into the circulation.