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Specialists Declare War on Sepsis

Aim to reduce death rate from blood infection by 25% within five years

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 2, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Specialists in critical care and intensive care medicine are declaring war on sepsis, a blood infection that kills 1,400 people worldwide every day and is now the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.

Sepsis, though little known by the public, has been raising concern in recent years among critical care and infectious disease specialists. While the percentage of people who die from sepsis has been declining, the overall number of deaths is up because the incidence has increased dramatically.

Today, at the European Society of Intensive Care Medicine's Annual Congress in Spain, officials from that organization and two others launched a "Surviving Sepsis" campaign to educate doctors and further reduce the mortality rate. Besides the society, the other organizations include the Society of Critical Medicine and the International Sepsis Foundation.

One goal is to reduce deaths from sepsis, which used to be called blood poisoning, by 25 percent within five years. In the United States, for instance, the death rate from sepsis is about 20 percent, according to figures released earlier this year.

"Sepsis is poorly understood by the lay public," says Dr. Phil Dellinger, medical director of critical care at the Cooper Health System, Camden, N.J., who took part in today's announcement.

Three pharmaceutical companies are funding the campaign with unrestricted grants. "The people offering financial support are devoid of any input on the campaign," Dellinger says. "It's totally being run by the three organizations."

The pharmaceutical companies backing the campaign are Baxter Healthcare Corp., Edwards Lifesciences and Eli Lilly and Co., which makes the sepsis drug Xigris.

Sepsis begins with an infection. Next, the immune system becomes intensely activated, and a cascade of events is set off, such as uncontrolled inflammation and activity of the coagulation system, with the promotion of dangerous clots.

While it can strike anyone, sepsis is more likely to affect those whose immune systems are not functioning up to par, such as those on anticancer drugs or someone who has just had surgery. "This disease is one that occurs fairly randomly," Dellinger says. "We are working on trying to figure out why it occurs in such random fashion."

Part of the campaign will involve educating physicians on how to better identify and treat sepsis. The campaign organizers are planning to develop guidelines on the disease to be made available to physicians who treat it. Dellinger says the goal is to produce the guidelines by 2003. Treatment includes antibiotics, sepsis drugs and supportive care.

For their part, consumers can educate themselves more about the disease, too, Dellinger says. "I would tell a person, 'If you think you have an infection and you suddenly have a very high fever, a rapid respiratory rate, feel woozy and weak, you may have sepsis," he says.

Specialists are hopeful the public will become as aware of sepsis as they are now of heart attack and the need for immediate treatment. Another speaker at the congress, Dr. Herwig Gerlach of Berlin, pointed out that increased public awareness and physician attention to heart attack has reduced the death rate substantially. To do the same for sepsis, he says, "we have to rapidly identify the organism responsible" and identify patients with sepsis as quickly as possible. As physicians do that, and the public becomes more aware of sepsis, he says, the same decline in the death rate can be achieved.

"The idea of the campaign is great," says Dr. Julia Garcia-Diaz, and infectious disease specialist at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans. "But the 25 percent reduction in mortality may be a little optimistic. The guidelines [for physicians] are going to be a little bit difficult" because the patients who get sepsis are so diverse.

What To Do

You can learn more about sepsis from the Lilly site,, KidsHealth or Surviving Sepsis.

SOURCES: Phil Dellinger, M.D., medical director, critical care, Cooper Health System, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Camden, N.J.;Julia Garcia-Diaz, M.D, infectious disease specialist, Ochsner Clinic Foundation, New Orleans; Oct. 2, 2002, Webcast, European Society of Intensive Care Medicine Congress, Barcelona, Spain
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