Sepsis is now a bigger killer than cancer across the world

16 January 2020, 18:54 | Updated: 16 January 2020, 23:32

Sepsis is now a bigger killer than cancer worldwide
Sepsis is now a bigger killer than cancer worldwide. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Sepsis is now a bigger killer than cancer worldwide, with one person dying from the disease every three seconds.

The number of people to have died from the condition was estimated to have doubled from 2016 to 2017, according to an international study published in The Lancet.

Sepsis accounts for almost one-fifth of global deaths - or 19.7 per cent - making it a bigger killer than cancer.

There were roughly 48.9 million cases in 2017 and 11 million deaths, across 195 countries and territories, according to the Global Burden Of Disease Report.

Figures for the previous year were 19.4 million cases and 5.3 million deaths, both fewer than half of 2017's numbers.

The data is based on adults in hospitals from seven high-income countries: Australia, Germany, New Zealand, Norway Spain, Sweden and US.

Experts warn the sepsis deaths could rise if people become resistant to antibiotics
Experts warn the sepsis deaths could rise if people become resistant to antibiotics. Picture: PA

Despite authors of the research being "alarmed" by the findings, they also found that cases of sepsis and deaths have been falling overall for the past three decades.

In 1990 there were 60.2 million cases of the disease, almost 20 per cent higher than 2017's estimates.

Children and adolescents, particularly in low or low-middle income countries, accounted for half the cases.

The UK was not included in the 10 nations with the lowest death and incident rates. It was ranked 132 out of the 195 countries, with an estimated 71.8 deaths per 100,000 people.

Experts have warned that failure to find new ways to tackle antibiotic resistance could see the number of deaths from sepsis rise across the globe.

Symptoms of sepsis can include an increased heart rate
Symptoms of sepsis can include an increased heart rate. Picture: PA

The authors write: "We have shown a global trend of decreasing sepsis burden but, importantly, substantial differences between regions remain, in total number of sepsis deaths, age distribution of sepsis deaths, and case fatality.

"These differences by location are alarming and deserve urgent attention from the global health, research, and policy communities."

The disease is difficult to spot and occurs when an individual responds poorly to a bacterial infection. In response, the body attacks its own tissues and organs.

Symptoms include high or abnormally low temperatures, fast heart rates and rapid breathing. Deterioration can happen rapidly and can lead to multi-organ system failure.

The study was led by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and University of Washington schools of medicine.

Researchers even acknowledged their figures may be conservative, due to reliance on death certificates which may not explicitly list sepsis as a contributing factor.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: "Sepsis can be life-threatening and good progress is being made on improving awareness, diagnosis and treatment of this syndrome.

"While the number of people diagnosed with severe infections and identified as at risk of sepsis in England has increased, mortality rates are falling."

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