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Sepsis threatens hospital patients (and others), study finds

July 20, 2010|By Tami Dennis, Los Angeles Times

Add sepsis to your list of post-surgery worries. Or, if you're so inclined, to your list of worries in general.

First, we'll look at the hospital picture. Researchers at Methodist Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical College, set out to document the incidence, mortality rate and risk factors for sepsis and septic shock after general surgery. And what they found wasn't pretty.

Using data from 363,897 patients, they established that sepsis, a life-threatening blood infection, occurred in 2.3% of those patients and that septic shock, dangerously low blood pressure from said blood infection, occurred in 1.6%. Compare that withthe better-known threats of pulmonary embolism — 0.3% of patients — and heart attacks (a.k.a. myocardial infarctions) — 0.2% of patients.

The researchers write:

"Case mortality rates in patients with sepsis and septic shock exceed those of [myocardial infarction] and pulmonary embolism] combined by nearly 10-fold. Therefore, our level of vigilance in identifying sepsis and septic shock needs to mimic, if not surpass, our vigilance for identifying MI and PE. By identifying 3 major risk factors for the development of and death from sepsis and septic shock in general-surgery patients, we can heighten our awareness for sepsis and septic shock in these at-risk populations."

Those three risk factors, by the way, are being older than 60, needing emergency surgery and having some other disease or condition as well.

Here's the abstract of the sepsis study published Monday in Archives of Surgery, and the "in other words" news release from Methodist Hospital in Houston.

And here's more on sepsis and septic shock from Merck.com.

Note that surgery certainly isn't necessary for sepsis to take hold.

That brings us to the outside-the-hospital picture. For a more personal account of what sepsis can do, there's this article from the Daily Press in Newport News, Va.: Amputee Relearns Life.

It begins: "Jackie Richard was hospitalized for what she thought was a stomach ache. In fact, she had developed sepsis, a life-threatening condition in which a person's body tries to fight off a severe infection that has spread through the bloodstream. Sometime after emerging from the fog that followed a two-week coma, Richard realized doctors had amputated her hands and her lower legs to save her life."

The Surviving Sepsis Campaign says this about the condition:

"Each year, severe sepsis strikes an estimated 750,000 people in the United States alone. The rate of severe sepsis is expected to rise to 1 million cases a year by 2010 as the population ages. Any kind of infection — bacterial, viral, parasitic or fungal — anywhere in the body can trigger sepsis."

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