What is sepsis, the disease that kills the most in the world?

According to a study by 24 researchers from universities in six countries based on medical records from 195 nations, 11 million people die every year from septicemia, more than cancer.

The researchers state that numbers are “alarming” because they doubled from previous estimates.

Most cases occur in low or middle income countries, but more and more wealthy nations are dealing with the problem.

Sepsis (or septicemia) is known as a “silent killer” because it is very difficult to be detected.

Sepsis is a systemic answer of the body to an infection, which can be caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi or protozoa.

Normally, the immune system fightback the infection and prevent it from spreading. But, if the infection manages to advance through the body, the body’s defense releases a systemic inflammatory response in attempt to fight it so the immune system can collapse because, when fighting an infection, it also damages other parts of the body itself.

Ultimately it causes organ systems failure, and survivors can have serious sequelae.

When not diagnosed and treated quickly, it can compromise one or more organs of the patient and lead to death.

When the patient develops septic shock, blood pressure drops to low and dangerous levels, reducing the oxygenation of organs, compromising their function. Septic shock, according to the British Health Service (NHS), can occur as a complication of sepsis.

Any infectious process, pneumonia or urinary tract infection for example, can progress to sepsis.

Why was there a increase in numbers?

Previous global estimates, which reached 19 million cases and 5 million deaths per year, were based only on a few Western countries.

But the University of Washington analysis, published in the Lancet scientific journal and based on medical records from 195 nations, states about 49 million cases per year.

The 11 million deaths from sepsis represent 1 in 5 deaths worldwide.

“I worked in rural Uganda and we see cases of sepsis every day”, says researcher and assistant professor Kristina Rudd, from the University of Pittsburgh.

“So this discovery was not a surprise, but I didn’t expect it to be the double from previous estimates”.

The good news from the analysis is that the number of cases and deaths has been decreasing since 1990. There has been a 50% drop in the past two decades.

What can be done?

The reduction in the number of infections can lead to a reduction in numbers of sepsis cases.

For many countries, this means better basic sanitation, clean water and access to vaccines.

Another major challenge is to improve the diagnose system for sepsis so patients can be treated before it is too late.

Early treatment with antibiotics or antivirals to eliminate the infection can make a big difference.

“We need to renew the focus on preventing sepsis among newborns and fightback antibiotics resistance, an important factor in this disease”, said Mohsen Naghavi, researcher at the University  of Washington.