From 1999 to 2014, incidents of sepsis were noted as causes of death in nearly 2.5 million Americans, or 6% of all deaths. Among the total number of deaths, sepsis was cited as the underlying cause of death for 22%. These statistics show the lethal reality sepsis poses as infections overwhelm the body’s immune system and claim patient lives. It is estimated that up to 1 million patients experience sepsis each year; of these, nearly 1/2 succumb to the infection and the damage it causes.
What Causes Sepsis
Sepsis is most frequently caused by bacterial infections. The most common bacterial causes of sepsis include:
- E. Coli – This bacteria often enters the body via the urinary tract or through infected food.
- Enterobacter – Often spread as the result of untreated urinary tract infections.
- Pseudomonas Auroginosa – This bacteria is common in burn injuries, and cystic fibrosis related pneumonia. Of all bacteria causing sepsis or septic shock, this has the highest mortality rate.
- Bacteroides Fragilis – This bacteria infects the tissue lining the abdomen. It is commonly found within the bowel and liver.
- Streptococcus Pneumonia – Found in patients being treated for pneumonia and meningitis, it is particularly deadly for patients with immune systems compromised by age or underlying medical conditions such as HIV or cancer. It is estimated that up to 50% of patients suffering sepsis are infected with streptococcus pneumonia.
- Staphylococcus Aureus – This bacteria infects skin and soft tissues. As the bacteria spreads, it generates a superantigen that leads to toxic shock syndrome.
Identifying & Treating Sepsis
Sepsis symptoms can include high fever, shaking, chills, rapid heartbeat, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and a sharp decrease in blood pressure. Because sepsis travels quickly through the body, prompt treatment is crucial for survival.
In order to properly treat sepsis, physicians must determine which bacteria is causing the infection and the source must be identified via either x-ray, CT scan, or ultrasound. This should be followed by a full white blood cell count, platelet count, and test for kidney and liver function.
Once identified, patients are frequently given broad-spectrum antibiotics such as ampicillin, amoxicillin, or tetracycline. This treatment also includes the use of IV fluids and oxygen to help protect organ systems from further damage.
The Damage Sepsis Causes
As the infection spreads throughout the body, the immune system responds by releasing chemicals into the blood to fight the infection. The resulting inflammation reduces blood flow throughout the body. This reduces the oxygen and nutrients flowing through the blood stream, which in turn causes significant damage to organs such as the lung, heart, kidneys, and liver. Even if a patient is promptly treated and recovers, it can cause permanent damage to organs such as the kidneys. If such damage occurs, patients will require long-term treatments such as dialysis to survive.
Sepsis can travel through the body rapidly. Patients with severe injuries or compromised immune systems can succumb to the spreading infection in less than 24-hours. As the infection spreads, it becomes more difficult and complex to treat. For this reason, early identification and prompt treatment is critical for reducing patient mortality rates.
The Growing Threat of Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria
Scientists, physicians, the CDC and many others are growing alarmed over the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Of particular concern is carbapanem-resistant enterobacteria. This bacteria flourishes in medical facilities and infects the lungs, bloodstream, bladder, and skin.
Recently, an elderly woman in Nevada succumbed to her infection with the bacteria. Her death is concerning because all available antibiotic options failed to eliminate the infection. The CDC is concerned because widespread use of antibiotics by the medical community has possibly created “superbugs.” As these bacteria spread, the mortality rates from sepsis could rise sharply within the United States.
Other countries are already experiencing similar scenarios with bacteria that cause tuberculosis. Uncommon in the United States, it remains common in South Africa and many developing nations. Travel and immigration could bring these antibiotic-resistant forms of the disease into the country and lead to widespread outbreaks.
Gabby’s Law Fights Sepsis in Illinois
In August 2016, Governor Rauner signed Gabby’s Law which updates sepsis protocols throughout the state. The law requires hospitals and other healthcare facilities to enhance training and implement protocols that assist in the early identification, care, and treatment of individuals at risk for sepsis. It is hoped that the new law will reduce the sepsis mortality rate in the state by more than 50%.
In the Chicago area, medical malpractice lawyers are closely monitoring the implementation and adherence to the law as sepsis and septic shock often result from the use of improperly sanitized medical equipment, delayed diagnosis, and other forms of negligent medical treatment. It is of particular concern in Illinois where as recently as 2014, the federal government cited nine Chicago area hospitals for severe violations that led to the spread of dangerous bacteria and an increased incidence rate of sepsis and septic shock.