Story at a glance

  • Researchers carried out one of the most comprehensive analyses of sepsis cases and found one in five deaths is caused by the disease.
  • Previous estimates claimed 1 in 10 deaths were caused by sepsis.
  • The disease occurs when the body overreacts to an infection, prompting organs to fail.

A new study finds that 1 in 5 deaths around the world is caused by sepsis, also known as blood poisoning, many more than previously estimated by medical experts. 

The study, led by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Washington schools of medicine, was published Thursday in the journal the Lancet. It estimates that in 2017, there were 48.9 million cases of sepsis worldwide and 11 million deaths. That means nearly 20 percent of all deaths globally were sepsis-related. Previous studies have estimated that sepsis is partly the cause for 1 in 10 deaths globally. 

But in the most recent and comprehensive study to date, researchers took a much closer look. They analyzed more than 109 million individual death records and trends from 1990 through 2017. Scientists used records of people who were hospitalized with sepsis and those who were not treated in a hospital. Earlier studies focused only on hospital records. 

The disease arises when the body overreacts to an infection and causes blood vessels in the body to become leaky. That then causes multiple organs to fail. 

Researchers found approximately 85 percent of sepsis cases in 2017 occurred in countries with low or middle sociodemographic states, and 40 percent of all cases occur in children under the age of 5. 

“What our colleagues who live and work in those settings have been saying for decades is that clinically every single day, they’re seeing a tremendous burden of sepsis,” Dr. Kristina Rudd, lead author of the study and assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh Department of Critical Care Medicine, said. “So I think finally we have data to put to that experience of colleagues. And indeed, they were right.” 

In the United States, one study estimates there are 1.7 million cases a year and 270,000 deaths as a result of sepsis. It can strike healthy people who have an infection that has gotten out of control. Many of the cases occur in people who are hospitalized in poor health.

The study does show, however, that there have been major reductions in sepsis since 1990. The death rate from sepsis has dropped by about half. 

Published on Jan 16, 2020