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The burden of sepsis and COVID-19

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Dr Ron Daniels

On behalf of the UK Sepsis Trust

With the world’s attention on infectious illness, we highlight the plight of those affected by sepsis every year around the world and call for support for survivors.

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition arising when the body’s response to an infection causes organ damage. It can be triggered by any infection, most commonly bacteria but also by viruses including SARS-CoV-2. The World Health Organization acknowledges that patients who are critically ill with severe COVID-19 and other infectious diseases are at higher risk of developing and dying from sepsis.

Within the UK, sepsis is estimated to affect 245,000 people each year claiming 48,500 lives. Around the world, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimate that 49 million people are affected each year accounting for 11 million lives lost. This means that, globally, an estimated 38 million people survive sepsis each year, just under 200,000 of those are based in the UK. As strategies to recognise and manage sepsis steadily improve, so too will the number of survivors.

The burden of survival

For approximately 40% of sepsis survivors, ongoing physical, cognitive and psychological challenges are in evidence at one year after their illness. For example, 22% suffer PTSD. This is described in the medical literature as ‘Post-Sepsis Syndrome’ (PSS).

In 2016, the York Health Economics Consortium estimated the cost of sepsis to the NHS to be £2.8 billion annually, with the cost of lost productivity consequently to the wider economy as high as £15.6 billion.

The need for action

Similarly, the plight of those surviving COVID-19 has been highlighted by the patient-coined term ‘long COVID’. Long COVID is likely to share many of the characteristics of PSS, perhaps with the added or more prevalent insults of lung scarring and heart muscle damage. As we pass the one year mark following the initial illness of many, it is becoming clear that, just like with PSS, whilst many patients have fortunately recovered the same is not true for all.

Patient and advocacy organisations like the UK Sepsis Trust have welcomed the NHS’ commitment to the Your COVID Recovery programme, though this is not yet available to all. Many Intensive Care Units offer follow-up to the most severely sick, though few offer rehabilitation. Access to supported rehabilitation should be available for all who survive sepsis and severe infection irrespective of the cause.

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