British Columbia

Researchers want sepsis treated as separate cause of illness and death

B.C. researchers argue in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that sepsis, a life-threatening organ malfunction, should be treated as a separate cause of illness and death worldwide.

Kelowna doctor almost died of the condition; sepsis linked to up to 50% of hospital deaths

B.C. researchers want sepsis, or blood poisoning, to be treated as a distinct cause of illness and death around the world. (Shutterstock)

Researchers argue in the Canadian Medical Association Journal this week that sepsis, a life-threatening organ malfunction, should be treated as a separate cause of illness and death around the globe.

Sepsis is a life-threatening malfunction of an organ due to infection. It is linked to 25 to 30 per cent of hospital deaths worldwide, which increases to 40 to 50 per cent for patients with complications in low income countries.

An estimated 30 million cases of sepsis each year result in more than eight million deaths.

"Despite its burden, sepsis is not well recognized as a leading cause of death in its own right," said Dr. Niranjan Kissoon, one of the editorial co-authors, a member of the Global Sepsis Alliance and a researcher at the University of British Columbia and British Columbia Children's Hospital.

Caused by infections, symptoms include fever, confusion

Sepsis, also known as blood poisoning, can be triggered by infections caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites and includes symptoms such as fever, increased heart rate and confusion.

The condition appears in people who are hospitalized for a variety of reasons, but researchers want doctors to instead view sepsis as a distinct illness and treat it as such.

"What is most important for sepsis is the early recognition which is still a problem worldwide," said Kissoon.

"Shifting the spotlight to sepsis as a distinct entity may set the stage for a robust response."

Kelowna doctor hospitalized with sepsis

A Kelowna phyisician nearly became one of last year's sepsis fatalities when she developed the condition in the fall.

"I became very suddenly unwell at home. I thought I was just coming down with a viral illness," said Dr. Laura Shaw, a physician with Kelowna General Hospital.

"Initially, I just had body aches. I had a very high spiking fever and during the times when I was having the fever I was having what we call rigors, which are shakes," she said.

"I was also quite confused at times, and that's one of the hallmark symptoms of sepsis."

Shaw credits an ER physician at the Kelowna General Hospital for recognizing her symptoms as possible sepsis. (CBC)

Shaw's family took her to the hospital, but she said her intial vital signs were good and her blood work was normal.

"I credit a very experienced emergency physician for looking at me and having the sense to say 'she really doesn't look well' and admitting me."

Shaw said her condition deteriorated drastically overnight.

'We knew things could go really wrong'

"When the lab results started coming back, I really had the sense of how serious this was."

"I think it's hard to be a physician and be ill, because you unfortunately know what the worst-case scenarios are."

Mortality for severe sepsis is between 15 and 30 per cent in high income countries like Canada.

"Unfortunately for both myself and my husband, we got pretty upset. We knew that things could go really wrong."

Doctors treated Shaw with intravenous fluids and antibiotics, but it was a long recovery.

Physician Laura Shaw contracted sepsis last fall and describes feeling 'absolutely shattered.' (Laura Shaw)

She said her own experience as a sepsis patient has given her increased empathy for people who contract the illness.

"I certainly have more compassion for our elderly patients that have sepsis because I knew how absolutely shattered I felt and how long the recovery was and I'm a young and healthy person."

Kissoon and the other authors of the CMAJ article said sepsis is a problem in hospitals worldwide, but the issue is exacerbated in low-income countries because of lack of access to vaccines, malnutrition and overcrowding.

The Global Sepsis Alliance is attempting to get the United Nations to recognize sepsis as a major public health threat.

With files from Daybreak South.