The Current

Why time is of the essence in treating sepsis — a growing killer in Canada

Doctors and patient groups are urging the medical community to pay more attention to recognizing and preventing sepsis, a life-threatening condition with a high mortality rate.
In 2011, one in 18 deaths in Canada involved sepsis, a potentially fatal medical condition triggered by the body's response to an infection. (Theo Heimann/Getty Images)

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Rose Stinson had never heard of sepsis when she developed a high fever while 11 weeks pregnant with twins.

At the hospital, she was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection, but her symptoms soon became more severe. She began shivering and turning blue until she was rushed into the intensive care unit.

The next day, she discovered only one of her babies had a heartbeat. A few days after that, the other twin died.

"I was released from the hospital labelled as just having a miscarriage and being depressed," she tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. But what Stinson didn't know at the time was that she had gone into septic shock.

It wasn't until about a few weeks later that her sister-in-law read the first page of her medical records and told her something the doctors never did.

"She's like, 'Oh my goodness … you're lucky to be alive.'"

A new study from the New England Journal of Medicine discovered that for each extra hour that it took to implement protocols for sepsis, the patient's odds of dying increased by four per cent. (AFP/Getty Images)

In 2011, one in 18 deaths in Canada involved sepsis, a potentially fatal medical condition triggered by the body's response to an infection.

But despite some doctors and patient groups saying how widespread it is, it doesn't get nearly as much attention as deaths caused by other factors, such as heart attacks and car accidents.

New research published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that when treated early, mortality due to sepsis can be reduced.

Dr. Christopher Seymour, the lead author of the study, says sepsis is difficult to diagnose because there is no single test and that's a contributing factor to why many clinicians have delays in initiating treatment.

"Unlike heart attacks where we can measure a proponent test in the blood and have a very specific answer as to whether their heart attack is present, that's not the case for sepsis," he explains.

"We have to put together both our suspicion for infection and then evidence that the organs are under threat."

Dr. Seymour believes educating clinicians, nurses and the public about sepsis can dramatically affect the outcome of patients through regulation or incentives. 
It can be difficult to diagnose sepsis because there is no single test for it. (Shutterstock)

"We can try to drive clinician behaviours so that they administer treatments in a timely way to the patients who they recognize with sepsis," he says.

His study found the quicker patients received a "bundle of care" designed for sepsis — a measurement to detect the severity, a blood culture to look for the source and the type of bacteria that is present — they had lower odds of mortality and their risk was decreased with every hour sooner they got treated.

"There are hundreds of thousands of patients with sepsis that die every year in the U.S. and Canada, and so there's this large population whom we can try to reduce avoidable deaths."

Listen to this segment at the top of the web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Sujata Berry and Alison Masemann.