Monday, June 3, 2013

Sepsis Alliance Announces 2013 Sepsis Heroes

If the average North American is asked "what illnesses cause the most deaths in North America?" it is very likely that he or she will list diseases like cancer or heart disease. It's very unlikely that they will ever mention sepsis. And yet, sepsis is not only a major killer in the United States and Canada, but those who survive are often left with life-changing after effects that range from limb amputations to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I work with a non-profit patient advocacy group, Sepsis Alliance. Its mission is to help raise awareness of sepsis so fewer people will be affected by it. Current estimates are that every two minutes, another person in the United States dies from sepsis. Many more survive, but are not able to return to life as they knew it before their illness.

So, what is sepsis?

Contrary to what some people think, sepsis is not a blood infection. It has been called that and it's also been called blood poisoning. But sepsis really is the body's response to an infection. It's a cascade of events that occur because your immune system has gone into overdrive trying to fight off a viral, bacterial, fungal, or other type of infection.

If you get a viral infection, such as influenza, the flu, and all works as it should, your body's immune system would fight it off. You feel lousy for a while, really lousy maybe, but your body fights the infection or you might get an antiviral medication to help, and you would eventually get better. If you develop a bacterial infection, such as a urinary tract infection (UTI) or you get an infection in a bug bite, the same thing happens. Your body's response is to fight the infection, but UTIs, infected bug bites, and other bacterial infections generally need antibiotics to help with that fight. Once the antibiotics work, the "bad" bacteria is killed and the infection goes away.

For some unknown reason, in some people, their immune system kicks into overdrive in its attempt to fight the infection. Like so-called friendly fire, your immune system attacks itself. It loses sight of the infection as the enemy and it is now attacking your whole body. This causes multiple problems, including blood clots in the blood vessels, organs shutting down, and even death.

The only way sepsis can be prevented is by avoiding infections. Proper handwashing is the first line of defence against infection, yet it is surprising how many people don't wash their hands as often as they should or wash them properly. The second line of defence is vaccinations. If you look at the Faces of Sepsis stories, there are stories of people who have died or were left with amputations and other issues after contracting the flu. Children who die from meningitis die from sepsis. Last year, I interviewed a pediatrician who told me that she has seen children with chicken pox who developed sepsis from scratching the skin and the open wounds from the scratching became infected. Vaccines do save lives.

The third line of defence is to treat infections as quickly as possible and to allow yourself the chance to heal. People who push themselves to return to work or their regular routines before their body is ready for it are just asking for trouble. If you're sick, your body needs to heal.

If sepsis does develop, it can be treated but it must be caught in the early stages. It must be caught early and treated properly to have the best chance of it not developing into severe sepsis and then into septic shock.

Sepsis is still very unknown, but there are people who are working to raise awareness of the disease. Sepsis Alliance will hold on September 12 their second annual Celebrating Sepsis Heroes evening, in conjunction with World Sepsis Day, which is on September 13. Today, Sepsis Alliance announced this year's five heroes. Among them are two authors - one who survived severe sepsis and one whose father died from sepsis. You can read about the newest Sepsis Heroes at

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