Called “deadliest disease many have never heard of”, sepsis cases double¹
(COLUMBUS, Ohio) October 2012 – Through an innovative new program, doctors and paramedics are teaming up to detect and treat dangerous blood infections that have doubled over the last decade. It’s a condition called sepsis, and even though many people have never heard of it, it claims an alarming number of lives each year.
“It’s similar to a plane crash happening every 7 hours, every day, loaded with 230 people on board,” said Eric Adkins, MD, an emergency medicine and critical care specialist at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “It’s a serious condition that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves.”
Sepsis often starts as a normal infection, anywhere in the body. “It can be something as simple as a cut or a urinary tract infection,” said Adkins. But once that infection seeps into the bloodstream, the body’s immune system can over-react and if sepsis develops, it can become deadly, quickly.
“The problem is, the signs can be very subtle,” said Adkins. “No one ever comes into the emergency department with a sign that says ‘I have sepsis.’ So, identifying those patients early is very important.”
To try and do that more consistently, experts at Ohio State are now distributing handheld meters to paramedics throughout central Ohio. The meters measure the amount of lactate in the blood. A high level of lactate means the blood is not able to carry enough oxygen, which can be an early indicator of sepsis.
If sepsis is suspected, paramedics will radio ahead to emergency departments and at Ohio State, a medical team assembles quickly in anticipation of their arrival. Fast treatment with antibiotics and medication to prevent low blood pressure and sustain vital organs can reduce long-term medical conditions and save lives.
“It is truly a medical emergency, like a heart attack or stroke,” says Adkins. “A lot of attention has been paid to early recognition of a heart attack, and that work has translated into better survival and improved outcomes. That is the model for what we are trying to do with sepsis.”
John Harris, chief of the Clinton Township Division of Fire, was among the first in the Columbus area to equip his medic unit with a lactate meter. Harris survived a battle with sepsis two years ago and knows firsthand how quickly the illness can take hold.
“I didn’t have any reason to think I was sick. One morning I went for a cup of coffee and on my way home I got really tired, disoriented and cold, very cold. My wife called 911 and I was in intensive care for a week,” said Harris.
Of the 750,000 Americans who develop sepsis each year, 20 percent die from the illness. For those with severe sepsis, the mortality rate climbs to 40 percent, and for septic shock it is approximately 60 percent.
Any type of infection can lead to sepsis, including pneumonia, urinary tract infections, influenza or wound infections. People over age 65, as well as children or those with compromised immune systems, are at higher risk of developing and dying from sepsis. Some of the early signs that someone might be septic include: rapid breathing, confusion, chills, fever and light-headedness due to low blood pressure.
“Earlier detection of sepsis will help save lives. There is a lot of research into improving recognition and treatment of sepsis, but we still have a long way to go,” said Adkins.
¹National Vital Statistics Report, (Table D, Page 10), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Volume 60, Number 6, June 6, 2012. Online: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr60/nvsr60_06.pdf
²Inpatient Care for Septicemia or Sepsis: A Challenge for Patients and Hospitals, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NCHS Data Brief Number 62, June 2011. Online: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db62.htm