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Sepsis – have you heard of this common killer?

In 2015, Chiefs assistant coach, Andrew Strawbridge came as close to death as you can get whilst on tour to Samoa.

Bacteria had entered Andrew’s body releasing toxins into his blood – it started from a skin infection around his eye but led to sepsis – his vital organs were shutting down due to infection. He spent several days in intensive care in Samoa and in Waikato Hospital, and was on antibiotics for weeks.

Andrew is a sepsis survivor. He is also very pragmatic and takes life one day at a time. His recovery has been very slow and steady.

He lost the sight in one eye and still suffers from fatigue two years on. He was fortunate to have been so fit before falling ill, otherwise medical staff believe Andrew would not be alive.

So what is sepsis?

Sepsis is a severe illness caused when bugs and the poisons they release spread in the blood. Sepsis is killing around 8 million people a year, yet awareness around the world is low. And today (13 September) is World Sepsis Day.

A recent survey conducted by The George Institute in Australia titled their findings ‘the killer most Australians have never heard of’ stating it kills more than prostate and breast cancer.

This leading cause of death is caused by the body’s response to an infection which damages its own organs and tissue.

A team at Waikato DHB, led by infectious disease specialist Dr Paul Huggan, is working to innovate and provide better care for patients with sepsis. And one of his priorities is to make the public more aware of this common killer.

“New Zealand is the ideal country to study the epidemiology of infection” says Dr Huggan.

“We conducted a study between 2007-2012 at Waikato Hospital that showed we dealt with around 1,600 people with sepsis during that time, caused by various infections.

“About 20% of hospital admissions involved time in Intensive Care. One in four patients died in hospital, which is much worse than heart disease or stroke.

“We found it is a disease of all ages in the Waikato. 30% of our patients were under 65 years old.

“The importance of sepsis as a cause of ill-health and death amongst Māori merits special attention. Māori in the Waikato are three times more likely than non-Maori to present to hospital with sepsis, and at a younger age.

“We’re seeing more sepsis each year as the population ages with chronic health problems.  We’re doing what we can to understand the problem but people need to know that sepsis isn’t a mild illness, and it’s not normal to be at home with a high fever, body shakes (rigors), confusion, severe weakness, heavy breathing or symptoms of infection that are rapidly getting worse. Sepsis is treated with antibiotics and fluid, and the sooner the better” Dr Huggan summarises.

The full report on sepsis in the Waikato has been published in the Oxford University Press:

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