Detecting Sepsis

Infections, indirectly if not directly, cause a substantial amount of strife. The pathogen can get into the bloodstream and cause high fever, flushed skin, fast heart rate, low blood pressure, delirium, and swelling of the whole body that can continue even once the infectious agent itself is entirely gone. This condition is known as sepsis, and if not properly treated, it can be fatal. In all, more people die each year from sepsis than from prostate cancer, breast cancer, and AIDS put together; according to a study released earlier this year, only one in ten hospital patients have sepsis, but it is responsible for half of all hospital deaths.

Sepsis is not always apparent until it is already occurring; there are few warning signs, though patients with certain conditions are more prone to developing it. That means it is especially important for doctors and other health care personnel to be alert, looking out for signs. One factor that makes a tremendous difference in survival rates, researchers have found, is how often the staff at a particular hospital is called on to treat patients with sepsis. Hospitals with high volume of sepsis patients treated it more effectively, overall, than hospitals in which it was a rarer occurrence, and at approximately the same cost per patient. The mortality rate for sepsis at busier hospitals was nearly 25 percent lower.

Testing for sepsis is an important part of providing treatment. Unfortunately, testing can take a long time, time health care professionals don't always have. Researchers have recently found a biomarker—a protein or other chemical characteristic of a condition, found in the blood of people who have it—that may make it possible to find sepsis with a simple blood test. That means more cases caught in the early, more tractable stages, and it means getting patients the treatment they need in hours, rather than days. The blood test, if it proves effective, would also be more precise, reducing guesswork and curtailing the role of intuition and fallible judgment.

In addition to better testing, more effective treatment may be available in the near future. A protein found in cells has properties that scientists believe could make it possible for the protein to fight sepsis. The treatment is still being investigated but laboratory tests have found it effective.

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