Why is sepsis so hard to spot?

Tired and ill little girl

Imagine a condition that causes between 20 and 30 million deaths worldwide each year. A disease that affects over 100,000 people annually in the UK, of which 37,000 will die. That’s more than breast and bowel cancer put together. However, many people have not heard of it, and even fewer understand what it is.

The condition is called sepsis and it’s the reason many adults, children and families, including the family of William Mead, are grieving for their loved ones. William was only one year old when sepsis claimed his life back in 2014. An enquiry into his death has revealed a number of learning points: primarily that awareness of sepsis needs to be improved. That sounds simple enough, so why are we failing?

Sepsis is incredibly hard to spot

Diagnosing sepsis isn’t clear-cut, so it’s no surprise there are instances where it may not get picked up quickly. Sepsis can be the result of any infection, and children get all sorts of these. It could start as a simple urine, chest or skin infection and when it comes to children, the symptoms of serious and non-serious infections can be the same.

Although we understand the process of how sepsis damages the body, we don’t fully understand why it happens. Sometimes, it’s because the germ that causes the infection is more likely to overpower the immune system (such as meningococcal sepsis). Sometimes, it’s because the person is particularly vulnerable (e.g. very young babies, or people with immune system problems). However, for the most part it’s unpredictable and that’s very difficult to deal with.

That’s precisely where training to spot the sick child is vital, and why the NHS needs to make sure those that deal with unwell children are suitably qualified. Being aware of what to look out for and when is extremely important, and that was one of the failings in William’s case.

Do I need to worry about sepsis in my children?

Even though the report from Williams tragic death serves as a wake-up call for both the public and professionals, it’s important to put it into context. It’s a terrifying thought for parents, but the reality is that the vast majority of infections we see in children in the community will not turn into life-threatening sepsis. It’s worth noting that there are some conditions that are MORE likely to turn in to sepsis – these include bacterial infections like meningococcus in any age, or Group B streptococcus in babies.

It’s difficult to specify red flags as there is no one specific sign for sepsis, but if you child has an infection (or may have an infection) and is getting worse, then they should be checked. Especially if they are increasingly lethargic, have pale of mottled skin, are passing less and less urine, or are working harder to breathe.

One other thing that we could all do is to make sure we use antibiotics properly. The misuse could lead to some becoming ineffective and therefore infections that turn into sepsis may be harder to treat.

What do I do if I suspect sepsis?

Research has shown that recognising and treating sepsis quickly can lead to better outcomes. People who have signs of sepsis need to get to hospital as soon as possible. Read more about how to spot sepsis here:

So, if you or someone you know has an infection and things are getting worse, it’s important to speak to a healthcare professional to see if the diagnosis or treatment needs to be changed.

We still have some way to go to beat sepsis, but fortunately things are getting better. The UK Sepsis Trust is working hard to make sure that awareness amongst NHS professionals is improved and systems are put in place to pick it up sooner and treat it properly. They have also lobbied the government to take this issue seriously and ensure all levels of the NHS do better, and I wholeheartedly agree.

But the responsibility lies with all of us. As parents, we must make sure our children are as healthy as possible, be aware of what to look out for when they have an infection, and make sure they are immunised to prevent some of the diseases that can cause sepsis.


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