Sepsis is common and often deadly. It remains the primary cause of death from infection, despite advances in modern medicine like vaccines, antibiotics, and recommendations for treatment. It is more common than heart attack, and claims more lives than any cancer, yet even in the most developed countries fewer than half of the adult population have heard of it. In the least developed countries, sepsis remains a leading cause of death.
Also known as “blood poisoning”, sepsis is a life threatening medical condition that arises when the body’s attempt to fight an infection results in the immune system damaging tissues and organs. This chaotic response, designed to protect us, causes widespread inflammation, leaky blood vessels, and abnormal blood clotting resulting in organ damage. In severe cases, blood pressure drops, multiple organ failures ensue, and the patient can die rapidly from septic shock. Patients vary in their response; the severity of their sepsis and the speed with which it progresses is affected by their genetic characteristics and the presence of coexisting illnesses, as well as the numbers and virulence of the infecting micro-organism. Some patients seem not to deteriorate until late in their illness, in others sepsis progresses rapidly and can be fatal within a few hours.
Cost-effective basic interventions save lives. Saving lives depends not just on treatments specific to a particular infection, but rather a focus on early recognition and awareness of sepsis, rapid antimicrobial therapy and resuscitation, and vital organ support. In short, sepsis is a medical emergency and each hour matters. A better understanding of sepsis as the final common pathway of illness due to infection is essential to drive improvement.
Sepsis occurs as a result of infections acquired both in the community and in hospitals or other health care facilities. The majority of cases are caused by infections we all know about: pneumonia, urinary tract infections, skin infections like cellulitis and infections in the abdomen (such as appendicitis). Invasive medical procedures like the insertion of a catheter into a blood vessel can also introduce bacteria into the blood and trigger sepsis.