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According to a new study, a medical condition that often escapes public notification may be involved in 20% of deaths worldwide.
The disease is sepsis, sometimes called blood poisoning. It arises when the body overreacts to an infection. Blood vessels throughout the body become permeable, which triggers the failure of multiple organs.
It is surprisingly common in the United States: a leading study estimates 1.7 million cases a year and 270,000 deaths. Sepsis in the US UU. It can affect healthy people who get an infection that goes crazy. Many other cases arise in the hospital. That happens frequently in people who already have health problems.
“Often, the underlying cause is something like lung cancer,” says Dr. Kristina Rudd, lead author of a study published Thursday in the Lancet. These people can develop pneumonia, which in turn leads to a fatal case of sepsis. With this domino effect, “it can be very difficult to solve that,” she says.
It is an even bigger problem in the developing world, where women of childbearing age are at the greatest risk. “These are women who develop an infection after giving birth or having a C-section,” says Rudd. These women may develop an infection that triggers deadly sepsis, “because they often do not have access to adequate obstetric care.”
Previous studies have suggested that sepsis is at least partly responsible for 1 in 10 deaths worldwide. Rudd, an assistant professor of critical care medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, along with more than a dozen collaborators, including some from the University of Washington, decided to analyze sepsis more closely worldwide.
They analyzed more than 100 million death certificates, dated between 1990 and 2007. They discovered that sepsis is twice as common as health officials have long believed, if not as a direct cause of death, at least as a contributing factor
They estimate that around 11 million people worldwide died with sepsis in 2017 alone, out of a total of 56 million deaths. That is approximately 20% of all deaths. “It’s a massive number,” says Rudd.
There is also good news in this study: it documents significant reductions in sepsis since 1990. According to the document, which was presented at a meeting held today in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the sepsis mortality rate has been halved since 1990 .
That is a surprising finding, says Dr. Chanu Rhee, who studies sepsis and infectious diseases at Harvard Medical School. “It is really interesting that in their study, they actually found that the incidence of sepsis decreased during the study period,” he says, “where other studies have suggested otherwise.”
Sepsis is not easy to study, partly because doctors may not think of including it as a cause of death or as a contributing factor in a death certificate.
“The accuracy of death certificates tends to be quite poor,” says Rhee. So, although he considers the new study to be an important contribution, he is not taking the results literally.
Rhee has studied cases of sepsis and deaths in the United States. His own findings here actually paint a more bleak picture than the new study when it focuses solely on the US death certificates. UU. Then, sepsis could contribute to more than 20% of deaths worldwide, he says.
For Rudd, the decline she and her colleagues have reported since 1990 seems consistent with a worldwide effort to improve public health, which includes “the provision of potable water and sanitation infrastructure and the development of effective vaccines and antibiotics,” he says.
Even so, there is much room for improvement in these efforts, as well as the need for more effective treatments. A better therapy may only be a short-term help for someone who is dying of lung cancer, but for millions of people worldwide who get an infection during childbirth, from a hospital infection or in a car accident, treatment Effective sepsis would be a true lifesaver.
You can contact NPR scientific correspondent Richard Harris at [email protected]