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November 28th 2016

Medical Negligence

Sepsis kills more than any single cancer, so patients and doctors must spot danger signs quicker

Sue Jackson

Sue Jackson

Solicitor, Clinical Negligence

Sepsis kills more than any single cancer, so patients and doctors must spot danger signs quicker

By Sue Jackson, a medical negligence solicitor at Hudgell Solicitors

By Sue Jackson, a medical negligence solicitor at Hudgell Solicitors

Cancer is a killer – and we all know it. Awareness campaigns have placed it at the forefront of our minds, and quite rightly so.

But very little is known by many about a bigger killer than any single form of cancer in the UK – sepsis.

A bacterial infection which can occur following the most common illnesses or simple injuries such as cuts and bites, it causes more deaths than prostate, bowel and breast cancer combined.

According the UK Sepsis Trust, an estimated 150,000 people are hospitalised with sepsis each year, and around 44,000 die.

Sepsis is caused by the way the body responds to germs, such as bacteria, getting into the body. It can start anywhere in a body, and may be only in one part or widespread.

It can be caused by a huge variety of bugs, most cases being caused by common bacteria which we all come into contact with every day without them making us ill.

Sometimes, though, the body responds abnormally to these infections, causing sepsis. This can ultimately lead to shock, multiple organ failure and death, especially if not recognised early and treated promptly.

Statistics show that a person dies of sepsis in the world every 3.5 seconds, and largely, many people are unaware of the key symptoms to be aware of, often mistaking them for flu, chest infections or sickness and diarrhoea.

Patients need to be aware of sepsis symptoms

Of course, there is a clear need for people to be aware of the symptoms of sepsis themselves.

Slurred speech, extreme shivers or muscle pain, severe breathlessness, blotchy or discoloured skin, or having passed no urine for a day are all red flag warnings to call emergency services, says the UK Sepsis Trust. In children, any child who is very lethargic or difficult to wake, breathing very fast, has a rash that does not fade when pressed, has a fit or convulsion, feels abnormally cold to touch or looks blotchy, bluish or pale when ill is a cause for extra concern.

For children under five, emergency care should be immediately sought if they are not feeding, have been sick repeatedly, or have not passed urine or had a wet nappy for 12 hours.

These are the signs that are vital for parents, patients and loved ones to recognise.

Early signs of a ‘flu-like illness, chest infection, diarrhoea and vomiting or inability to eat and drink, together with one of the symptoms of sepsis, should be the warning to seek medical advice immediately.

It is then that we expect and need health professionals to act appropriately

Medical professionals failing to act on clear signs of possible sepsis

Sadly, as specialists in handling cases of medical negligence, we at Hudgell Solicitors see how sepsis is often not considered by health professionals early enough, a mistake which can have devastating consequences.

In two recent cases in which I have supported families personally in my work, including the avoidable death of a three-and-a-half year old girl, each had signs of sepsis on basic observations that were not acted upon.

In another case I handled some years ago, a woman had clear signs of infection in her finger which was misdiagnosed as ischaemia, and she ended up having her finger amputated.

Are antibiotics being used effectively to tackle sepsis?

What is clear in all cases, and from the independent medical experts who advise us when representing people in damages claims, is that every hour of delay in treating patients with antibiotics raises the risk of death.

Indeed, an independent expert consulted by us in the case involving the three-year-old girl concluded that she would have been saved had doctors prescribed antibiotics on any of the occasions her family sought medical help.

Sadly, all is not straight forward, and doctors are under various pressures.

Currently, there appears to be a discrepancy between the constant drive to stop the overuse of antibiotics across the NHS, and using them effectively when needed.

The overuse of antibiotics in unnecessary conditions has been a cause for concern across the NHS, as bacteria can adapt and find ways to survive the effects of them if overused and not taken at the appropriate time, with the appropriate dosage and for the ideal duration.

This means we face a real danger in terms of use of antibiotics going forward. They have to be prescribed when they are really required.

Doctors face tough decisions on their uses. Antibiotics need to be reserved for situations where they are vital to ensure they remain as effective as possible for all those who find themselves at risk of serious illness.

Symptoms of sepsis are one of these. The risks of not prescribing quickly, as we have sadly seen, can be devastating.

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