Sepsis killing twice as many Australians as previously thought

Deadly condition killing nearly 9000 Australians a year

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SILENT KILLER: There are more sepsis cases and deaths in Australia each year than previously thought.

SILENT KILLER: There are more sepsis cases and deaths in Australia each year than previously thought.

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Study estimates there are 55,000 sepsis cases a year in Australia and 8700 deaths.

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SEPSIS is killing twice as many people in Australia than previously thought, says new research.

The burden of this silent killer throughout the country has been vastly underestimated with as many as 55,000 cases a year - three times more than previously thought and 8,700 deaths, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study published in the Lancet.

The study used data from 109 million death records and 8.6 million hospital records in 195 counties and territories during 2017 to estimate the burden of sepsis around the workd.

It found there were 49 million sepsis cases and 11 million deaths - double previous estimates, with as many as one in five deaths worldwide related to sepsis.

Contributing author Professor Simon Finfer from The George Institute for Global Health said it was concerning that so many lives were being lost to a condition that is largely preventable.

"Previous estimates of the burden of sepsis in Australia were mainly those treated in intensive care units, which put the number of cases at 18,000 and deaths at 5,000," he said.

"But the GBD estimate now gives a more accurate picture of the size of the problem by including sepsis occurring outside of the hospital, putting the number of Australian cases at 55,000 and deaths at 8,700."

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is a time-critical medical emergency that arises when the body's response to an infection damages its own tissues and organs. It can lead to shock, failure of multiple organs, and death if not recognised early and not treated promptly.

We urgently need a coordinated national approach that addresses pre-hospital and in-hospital recognition and treatment, to address the significant death and disability caused by sepsis in Australia. - Professor Simon Finfer, The George Institute

Sepsis affects people of all ages and patients across a broad range of clinical specialties but particularly the very young, the very old and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. However, awareness is low with a 2016 survey finding 60 percent of Australians had not heard of sepsis and only 14 percent could name one of its symptoms.

"Compared to lower income countries there are very few injury related sepsis deaths in Australia, which likely results from our well organised and comprehensive trauma and critical care systems. This stands in stark contrast to the lack of such a system to deal with sepsis," added Professor Finfer.

"We urgently need a coordinated national approach that addresses pre-hospital and in-hospital recognition and treatment, to address the significant death and disability caused by sepsis in Australia."

Other findings from the study:

  • The large majority of sepsis cases - 85% in 2017 - occurred in low - or middle -income countries.
  • The highest burden was found in sub-Saharan Africa, South Pacific islands near Australia and Southeast Asia.
  • Sepsis incidence was higher among females than males.
  • By age, the incidence of sepsis peaks in early childhood, with more than 40 percent of all cases occurring in children under 5.

Professor Finfer established the Australian Sepsis Network (ASN), a national association working closely across jurisdictions, sepsis clinical champions and survivors.

We hope that by continuing to raise awareness of sepsis both in the community and amongst health professionals and providing clear guidance on treatment, we will start to see a decline in the burden of this often devastating condition. - Professor Simon Finfer The George Institute

In early 2018, the ASN, which is hosted at The George Institute, released the 'Stopping Sepsis National Action Plan', which was developed in collaboration with policy, clinical, academic, research and survivor stakeholders.

In 2019, Australian Government committed $1.5m to address the burden of sepsis through the development of treatment guidelines for health professionals and public awareness initiatives.

The Australian Sepsis Network says the condition is treatable if caught early. It can occur as a result of any infection, so it is important to be aware of sepsis symptoms and seek urgent medical help if you have:

  • rapid breathing
  • rapid heart rate
  • confusion, slurred speech or disorientation
  • fever or shivering
  • muscle pain
  • not passing urine
  • discoloured skin

Source the Australian Sepsis Network

"We hope that by continuing to raise awareness of sepsis both in the community and amongst health professionals and providing clear guidance on treatment, we will start to see a decline in the burden of this often devastating condition," said Professor Finfer.

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