In Brief

The Surprising Condition That Causes 1 in 5 Deaths

A patient in the ICU.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

The number of deaths from sepsis worldwide is much higher than previously thought, with an estimated 20% of people dying from the life-threatening condition, according to a new study.

The study, published today (Jan. 16) in the journal The Lancet, estimated that in 2017, 49 million people developed sepsis and 11 million died from the illness. That's more than double the number of deaths previously estimated. (A recent study estimated only 5 million deaths from sepsis globally.) It's also more than the number of deaths from cancer, which kills an estimated 9.6 million people each year, according to the World Health Organization.

More than half of the sepsis cases in 2017 occurred among children, many of whom were newborns, the authors said.

"We are alarmed to find sepsis deaths are much higher than previously estimated, especially as the condition is both preventable and treatable," study senior author Dr. Mohsen Naghavi, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, said in a statement. "We need renewed focus on sepsis prevention among newborns and on tackling antimicrobial resistance, an important driver of the condition."

Sepsis is an "extreme" immune response to an infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It happens when an existing infection — such as a skin, lung or urinary tract infection — triggers a "chain reaction" in the body that leads to widespread inflammation, according to the CDC.

This inflammation can lead to blood clots and leaky blood vessels, which in turn cause poor blood flow, according to the National Institutes of Health. In severe cases, sepsis can lead to organ failure and life-threatening drops in blood pressure.

Many previous estimates of sepsis cases and deaths looked at only middle- and high-income countries, and considered only individuals who were admitted to the hospital. The new study used data from millions of deaths and medical records around the world to estimate sepsis cases and deaths across 195 countries.

Some of the most common underlying causes of sepsis in the study were diarrheal disease, respiratory infections and maternal disorders (such as infections after childbirth.)

Many cases of sepsis, particularly in developing countries, could be prevented with increased access to vaccines (to reduce infection risk), improved sanitation and adequate nutrition for children and mothers, said study lead author Dr. Kristina E. Rudd, an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Critical Care Medicine. High-income countries also need to do a better job at preventing hospital-acquired infections as well as chronic diseases that can make people more susceptible to infections, she said.

Originally published on Live Science. 

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.