Stephen Jones, partner in the medical negligence team in the Manchester office of Leigh Day looks at new ways to tackle Sepsis a common but often fatal infection.

According to media reports this week, an inquest has heard that Charlie Jeremyn, a baby born in the toilet after his mother was sent home from hospital, died of sepsis just 30 hours after being born as a midwife failed to recognise “red flag” symptoms of the infection.

After five hours on the maternity unit at the Royal Cornwall Hospital, Charlie’s mother, was told to go home as she was not advanced enough in labour.

A midwife examined Charlie at home shortly after his birth when he was showing possible signs of illness, but he was not sent to hospital for treatment.

Charlie was reported by his mother of showing at least two clinical indicators for concern; the fact that he was not feeding and that he was sleepy. The midwife also heard Charlie making grunting noises after he was born which is a red flag indicator of sepsis.

Despite this, the midwife did not send him to hospital. The inquest into his death heard that Charlie would probably have survived if he had been born in hospital where the Strep A infection would probably have been spotted early and life saving antibiotics would have been given.

Alternatively, if his symptoms had been recognised by the midwife and he had been sent to hospital soon after he first showed signs of sepsis, the outcome might have been different.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is a common and potentially life threatening condition triggered by an infection. The body’s immune system goes into overdrive, setting off a series of reactions including widespread inflammation, swelling and blood clotting.

This can lead to a significant decrease in blood pressure, which can mean the blood supply to vital organs such as the brain, heart and kidneys is reduced. It can lead to shock, multiple organ failure and death, especially if not recognised early and treated promptly.

Known as a silent killer, sepsis can be extremely difficult to recognise and diagnose, but sometimes it can be prevented and is treatable in many cases.

When sepsis is detected early, it is possible to treat the infection at home with antibiotics. If the infection is severe, as a result of problems with vital organs, people are likely to be very ill and the condition can be fatal.

The UK Sepsis Trust estimates that 10,000 deaths could be avoided each year through prevention or early accurate diagnosis and effective treatment. If it is identified and treated quickly, sepsis is treatable and in most cases leads to a full recovery with no lasting problems.

New Action Plan to help tackle sepsis

On 23 December 2015, NHS England published a new action plan to help support healthcare professionals to recognise and treat sepsis promptly. It sets out what needs to be done to drive improvements for patients with sepsis and focuses on five key areas:

  • Preventing avoidable cases of sepsis
  • Increasing awareness of sepsis amongst the public and professionals
  • Improving identification and treatment of sepsis across whole care pathway to ensure that patients receive the care they need irrespective of first point of contact.
  • Improving consistency of standards and reporting – NICE are to publish clinical guidelines in 2016. Ensuring appropriate antibiotic prescribing.

Cases such as Charlie’s serve to highlight the importance of catching this infection early. As this action plan is rolled out and awareness of sepsis is increased, we will hopefully see less of these tragic cases where fatality could have been avoided.