The stealthy killer that nobody has heard of



Illustration of rod-shaped bacteria in a blood vessel with red blood cells and leukocytes.

Jessie Himel

What causes an American to die every two minutes? What’s the third leading killer of people in the United States?  What’s the #1 killer of children in the world?  It’s the same answer for each question:  Sepsis.  Sepsis is the disease that 45 percent of Americans have never heard of, yet it’s killing more of us than breast cancer, prostate cancer and AIDS combined.  The most shocking fact is that 80 percent of these sepsis deaths were preventable if the victims had the proper information about this stealthy killer. 

But what exactly is sepsis?  According to the CDC, sepsis is “the body’s extreme response to an infection.” In the presence of an infection, hormones and chemicals enter the bloodstream to address the infection. This causes profound swelling throughout the body, which leads to tissue damage, organ failure and death. Despite the clear danger of sepsis and high rate of preventability, our country’s educational system fails to properly teach students about sepsis.

Everyone should know about sepsis and do what they can to educate themselves and their families, if only because sepsis does not discriminate.  Your age, socio-economic status, gender and race do not matter.  Any type of infection can lead to sepsis and possible death. For example, a few years ago a healthy 12-year-old boy from New York named Rory Staunton simply scraped his elbow playing basketball in school, and 48 hours later he was dead from sepsis. There are countless stories like this.  

But it is within our power not to become a statistic. Unfortunately, the medical community is limited in its ability to treat sepsis. According to Dr. Osborn, a professor of surgery and of emergency medicine at Washington University School of Medicine, “there is no definitive symptom” for sepsis, as the symptoms can include fever, shivering, high heart rate, intestinal distress, extreme pain and cognitive confusion or disorientation. This wide variety of possible symptoms makes it very difficult for doctors to correctly identify sepsis. In fact, sepsis was only written on 40 percent of the death certificates of those who died from the condition.

Considering the current limitations of the medical community, an option would be to fight sepsis through the educational system. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are currently 50.7 million students enrolled in K-12 schools in America. This is a captive audience. This is where the frustration lies. There is no reason why every school does not provide information about sepsis to students. It is not a funding issue, not a huge time commitment and does not require expert knowledge to understand. The bare minimum would be to dedicate just one health class to sepsis prevention, which would still be impactful. These students also bring the knowledge with them back home to their parents and families. 

New York is the only state that requires schools to provide an educational program on sepsis. These schools have implemented a grade-specific sepsis curriculum designed to teach students prevention and symptom identification. For example, a lesson plan for preschoolers focuses on the importance of washing hands, cuts and bites. Middle schoolers learn how bacteria is shared and why sepsis is a public health emergency. High schoolers focus on the role of community in improving the current health care system in order to reduce cases of sepsis. These engaging lessons provide an initial foundation of understanding to teach personal prevention and the means to take action in sepsis prevention on a larger scale. Each lesson plan takes approximately 40 minutes. In that same amount of time, 120 Americans will be diagnosed with sepsis.

We can understand the benefits of sepsis education in relation to time and severity. According to Sepsis Alliance, every hour treatment is delayed, the likelihood of dying from sepsis increases by eight percent. There are typically three stages of sepsis, ranging from the early stages to septic shock. According to Mayo Clinic, the earlier the patient is treated the higher the probability of surviving. Once the patient reaches the stages of septic shock, he or she requires drastic measures to ensure proper breathing and heart function. Knowing this, providing a sepsis education in schools empowers kids with the knowledge to seek help before reaching the deadly stages of sepsis. 

The key to prevention is awareness, so it is time to educate everyone on the dangers of this stealthy killer. That means parents, children, school nurses and teachers.  Think of it this way. A Villanova student falls down and scrapes her leg. There is a chance she can share the same sad fate as 12-year old Rory Staunton who died of sepsis after scraping his elbow in school.  Luckily, every Villanova student has the ability to play a pivotal role in educating themselves and spreading awareness of the dangers of sepsis. There are ways to learn about sepsis right now online.

And, hopefully our educational system will soon follow the lead of New York and arm students across the country with the knowledge to save lives.