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Blood infections rare but dangerous, say doctors in wake of Ava Lizotte death

Infectious disease specialists say the type of condition linked to the death of an 11-year-old Yellowknife girl is rare, but difficult to treat.

Treatment options limited due to complex nature of blood infections

Treating a blood infection, and the condition known as septis, is difficult, say doctors. (Shutterstock)

Infectious disease specialists say the type of condition linked to the death of an 11-year-old Yellowknife girl is rare, but difficult to treat.

Ava Lizotte died Friday in an Edmonton hospital. Family friends say she'd first complained of pains Wednesday and was admitted to Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife. They say doctors diagnosed her illness as a blood infection and a medevac team transported her to Edmonton.

"It's not the infection itself, but it's the reaction of the body to the presence of the organism in the bloodstream," said Dr. Andre Corriveau, the N.W.T's chief public health official.  

Corriveau could not speak to the specifics of Lizotte's case, but he did speak with CBC News about blood infections in general. He said a blood infection can lead to a series of conditions known as sepsis, which describes the breakdown of organs in the body as it fights the infection, Corriveau said.

"It's a very rare event, especially in that age group. We have to take it as something that's very unusual, though it does happen," Corriveau said. "We have to view it as a rare and unfortunate event."

Symptoms difficult to manage 

Dr. Michael Silverman, the chair of the infectious diseases department at the London Health Sciences Centre in London, Ont., also would not comment on Lizotte's case directly.

But he explained the difficulty with blood infections and sepsis is the complexity of trying to heal different parts of the body at the same time.

"It's like there are a lot of levers being pushed and all the different systems of the body are trying to fight this," he said. "Knowing how to control and intervene in a way that will lead to benefit with no harm has been very difficult."  

Though there have been advances in antibiotics and the standard of care in intensive care units across the country, the body is complex and studies looking at treating sepsis have been "disappointing," Silverman said.  

"The system just keeps being more complex than what was thought before," he said.

Blood infections — and complications from sepsis — remain rare in healthy patients outside a hospital setting, Silverman said, adding that in most children and adults, the risk of contracting a blood infection outside of a hospital is low. 

"Sepsis is rare. People should not feel every time they get a fever or a cough the next step is sepsis. For the vast majority of people it's not," he said. "But it's also important to have more research and get help to these people that are suffering from this catastrophic complication."   

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