What severe sepsis needs is the equivalent of an American Heart Association. An organization that exists to teach the general public, as well as physicians, how to save lives. Thanks, in large part, to the heart association, Americans are well versed in the symptoms of heart attack. Pick up the phone and call your mother (this assumes that your mother is not a doc, which is not a 100% safe assumption, but is more likely to be true than not). Ask her what causes heart attacks. There is a high likelihood that she understands that heart attacks stem from acute occlusion of a coronary artery. She can probably tell you that the symptoms include pain in the chest, jaw, and shoulder and that there are clot busting drugs to help, if you get to the hospital quickly. More than likely, she also recognizes some of the major risk factors, including cholesterol, hypertension, and – one hopes – smoking.
Now ask her about sepsis, and listen to the deafening silence on the other end of the phone line. Severe sepsis is the stealth killer; it kills between 30% and 50% of people who develop it, and it is one of the most common causes of death in the US, although the deaths are often attributed to underlying diseases, such as COPD or cancer. There are no public service announcements about sepsis. One does not find the signs or symptoms in the lay press. Only the occasional nightmare story about a young person in whom the diagnosis of severe sepsis was missed and who died as a result. The sad thing is that this happens much more frequently than the reports in the papers show up. Worse yet, physicians remain, in large part, oblivious to the simple approach to infected patients that would prevent many of the deaths. Worst of all, every family has been touched by severe sepsis in one way or another, but they mostly do not know it, because none of the doctors called it that, only “severe pneumonia,” “kidney infection,” “peritonitis.”
What we need is an organization to promulgate knowledge about severe sepsis at all levels, to let people know that it is there, it is deadly, and you can intercept it early. We need average citizens to expect that their healthcare providers are looking for it, expecting it, and ready to act rapidly to intercept it. We need them to ask their physicians, “Doc, could this be severe sepsis?” When the public expects it, the health care system will rise to the task.
The organization does exist, but it is in its relative infancy. It is called the Sepsis Alliance (www.sepsisalliance.org). The organization was founded by a dentist whose daughter, in her early twenties, died from lack of recognition and early, aggressive treatment for her severe sepsis after a minor outpatient surgical procedure. The Sepsis Alliance will be the AHA of sepsis. Check it out, learn more about sepsis, join the cause. Infection is humankind’s oldest foe, and severe sepsis is the way it kills.