Kim GregoryComment

Beating the silent killer

Kim GregoryComment
Beating the silent killer

It’s a complication of infection that claims up to 65,000 lives a year. Now a new campaign is teaching us how to spot the early signs of sepsis

You may have heard a lot about sepsis recently. As well as shocking stories in the news, it has been revealed that far more people have suffered from the condition than previously thought. 

A whopping 260,000 Britons a year develop it — 110,000 more than initially estimated — and it’s suggested that up to 65,000 of these patients die, according to a study from the York Health Economics Consortium (YHEC). That’s more deaths a year than breast, bowel and prostate cancer combined. 

‘We’ve long been aware that sepsis causes frightening numbers of unnecessary deaths, but our most recent figures are a shocking new indication of the gravity and sheer scale of the problem,’ Dr Ron Daniels, Chief Executive of the UK Sepsis Trust, says. ‘Sepsis has a devastating human cost. Every day in the UK, individuals and families have their lives torn apart by the condition.’

What is sepsis? 

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that occurs when the immune system goes into overdrive to fight an infection, such as septicaemia or blood poisoning, and the body attacks its own organs. 

If antibiotics are given quickly, it can be effectively treated with no long-lasting problems. But, sadly, sepsis is difficult to diagnose until sometimes it is too late, which is why it is called The Silent Killer. The YHEC report said that earlier diagnosis and treatment could save over 14,000 lives annually.


In 2014, sepsis came to public attention when one-year-old William Mead died from the condition. Doctors had failed to spot that he had sepsis and the helpline NHS 111 mishandled his mother Melissa’s call. 

You may also have read, in Take a Break, about sepsis survivor Tom Ray. He fell ill and deteriorated quickly, but doctors could not work out the cause until he was in intensive care. 

Despite treatment, Tom was left severely disabled, having lost all of his limbs and part of his face. 

Another person who learnt the devastatingly quick effects of sepsis was 45-year-old Donna Martin from West Dunbartonshire. 

Her husband Charles, known as Chic, contracted sepsis in 2014. But he wasn’t diagnosed for days. 

‘Chic had type 1 diabetes, so he was in and out of hospital and had been in comas before,’ Donna says. ‘He had a cheeky sense of humour, saying: “It gives me some peace and quiet.”’ 

That November, their three children Connor, 19, Jack, 15, and Logan, 12, had a vomiting bug. 

‘Chic began feeling ill on Sunday night,’ Donna says. ‘By Tuesday he was feverish and felt sick, like the boys had. I rang NHS 111 with his symptoms and they said it was viral. I assumed that it was the vomiting bug.’

But when Chic’s flu symptoms got worse and his blood sugar levels fluctuated dramatically, Donna began to worry. 

She says: ‘On Wednesday morning he made noises I recognised as indications of a coma so I rang an ambulance.’

In hospital, they induced Chic’s coma and he went into intensive care. On Saturday, doctors finally mentioned sepsis. 

‘I hadn’t even heard of it,’ Donna says. ‘Although I now know type 1 diabetes sufferers are prone.’

Chic went on dialysis, but it was ineffective. The infection had gone so long untreated that it was too late. There was nothing doctors could do.

On Monday Donna and their boys made the agonising decision to turn off Chic’s life support. 

‘I felt as if my heart exploded,’ Donna says. ‘In less than a week, my husband went from fine to dead. 

‘Looking back, I recognise the symptoms of sepsis, although he didn’t have all of them and they were so similar to other illnesses. I urge everyone to always ask: Could it be sepsis? If you think yes, use your voice. Speak up — even if you feel silly. 

‘I’ve lost my husband, and my boys don’t have a dad. I don’t want other families to go through what I have.’

Sparking change

So what’s being done to tackle this phenomenon? 

Dr Daniels says: ‘Better awareness and education for healthcare professionals could save thousands of lives each year and would mean drastically improved outcomes for survivors.’

Last year Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt promised every new mother would be told about the signs of the condition, announced extra training for doctors and nurses, and said millions of leaflets and posters will be distributed to GP surgeries and A&E units.

This should come into effect soon. 

Dr Daniels adds: ‘Whenever there are signs of infection, it’s crucial that members of the public seek medical attention urgently and ask: Could it be sepsis? With every hour that passes before the right antibiotics are administered, risk of death increases.’ 

Edited by Kim Gregory