Philip Hunt on the need for greater public awareness of a killer in our midst
Today, the House of Lords will debate a huge but largely unknown killer in our midst: sepsis. More common than heart attacks, this affects quarter of a million people every year. A staggering 43,000 adults and 1,000 children die annually from sepsis but few people are even aware what it is, let alone the symptoms.
Sepsis occurs when the body damages its own tissues and organs by overreacting to an infection. The people most at risk are those undergoing surgery or treatment that lowers immune systems, those with long-term conditions (for example, diabetes or HIV), the very young or old, or pregnant women. It can also however, affect anyone who gets an infection.
Simple, timely interventions can halve the risk of dying from sepsis. Treatment usually involves antibiotics, giving fluids intravenously and oxygen. Even if you survive, there can still be long term complications, including amputation, irreversible damage to the heart, lungs or kidneys, cognitive dysfunction or post-traumatic stress disorder.
The earlier sepsis is identified, the easier it is to treat. Unfortunately, many sufferers are not given priority when they go to A&E. Far too often, a patient is not diagnosed or tested quickly enough.
For every hour’s delay in initiating life-saving therapy for someone with sepsis shock, the risk of death rises by 8%. The pioneering organisation, UK Sepsis Trust estimates that if the symptoms are noticed and treated sooner, as much as £2.8bn could be saved and 14,000 deaths would be prevented.
Since the Birmingham based Trust began work under the inspired leadership of Dr Ron Daniels, progress has been made. New NICE guidelines have been issued, and with government support, there has been a launch of a public awareness campaign on sepsis in children.
But much more remains to be done, and there needs to be a step change in the diagnosis of sepsis. Education programmes for healthcare professionals are urgently needed to make the quality of care consistent across the UK. There is too much of a postcode lottery at present.
It is also essential to have a nationwide campaign for adults who make up the overwhelming majority of victims. This need not be expensive in comparison to the £15.8bn that sepsis is costing our economy each year, yet it could reach millions of people. We also need the NHS to change the way it records sepsis. Better data will allow healthcare professionals to diagnose and treat it more quickly. With the right data distributed widely, doctors will be more likely to recognise the condition.
Sepsis causes more deaths than the combined mortality from bowel, breast and prostate cancer, and road accidents. Yet it is simply not a priority for the NHS. Today’s debate, prompted by Lord Grade, is an ideal platform for Ministers to put this right.
Lord Philip Hunt of Kings Heath is Shadow Health Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @LordPhilofBrum
Thursday 14th September 2017