“We know from people who survive, 50 per cent will have significant ongoing healthcare problems – physical, cognitive and psychological – and there’s no coordinated services for these people.”
While sepsis kills more people in Australia than lung, bowel or breast cancers, Professor Finfer said only 40 per cent of the population have heard of it.
“The only thing we know reduces the risk of death is rapid diagnosis and treatment, so we need that increase in awareness within the general community and for the healthcare workers who are likely to see people with sepsis because it’s a time critical emergency,” he said.
Sepsis is caused when an immune response to infection starts to damage tissues and organs. Without fast treatment it can lead to death and survivors will often have ongoing health issues.
Mandy McCracken understands the long-term affects of sepsis after losing her hands and feet to the condition six years ago.
It began with flu and gastro-like symptoms, but two days later she rapidly deteriorated and was rushed to hospital from her home in the Victorian town of Kilmore.
“I got put into a medically induced coma, 10 days later I woke up and my hands and feet were black,” she said.
“It didn’t just affect me, it stopped my husband working – he had to quit his job, he’s not worked as a teacher since. My teenage kids are now my carers, they have to come with me to the supermarket because I can’t go by myself.”
Director of the National Centre for Antimicrobial Stewardship Professor Karin Thursky said the Global Burden of Disease study on sepsis highlighted the need for a national response.
“Every state does something different,” she said.
Professor Finfer, who also established the Australian Sepsis Network, said a national action plan created by the network and the George Institute in 2018 found increasing awareness of the condition, standardised treatment and support for survivors would help reduce deaths.
Signs and symptoms of sepsis
Sepsis is more common in young children and the elderly, and people with conditions including diabetes and respiratory conditions are also at higher risk.
Professor Finfer said people who have had sepsis often say they felt “worse than they’ve ever felt in their life”.
Other signs include rapid breathing and heart rate, fever, muscle pain, not passing urine and discoloured skin.
In children, if symptoms appear including the above but also convulsions or fits, a rash that won’t disappear when you press it and repeated vomiting, urgent medical care is needed.
The Professor added a “significant sign” was mental effects including agitation and confusion in adults and drowsiness and floppiness in young children.
More information can be found at the Australian Sepsis Network website.
Professor Thursky said it was also important to have a “whole systems approach” so there were no unintended consequences.
Ms McCracken, whose work with the Australian Sepsis Network has made a “huge difference” to her life, said people needed to know the signs and symptoms.
“Six years ago I had no idea what sepsis was, but I was a textbook case,” she said.
Rachel Clun is a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald.