Sepsis: Antibiotics 'not working'

Bacterial infection Sepsis is a potentially fatal condition caused by the body's immune system overreacting to infection

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Patients are dying from sepsis because of a lack of effective antibiotics, an expert is warning.

Mark Bellamy, president of the Intensive Care Society, told the BBC the problem of resistance would get worse unless new and effective antibiotics were developed.

Sepsis is triggered by infections and causes around 37,000 deaths a year in the UK.

NHS England says hospitals should work together to tackle the problem.

Prof Mark Bellamy: "Without new and effective antibiotics the problem will gradually escalate"

Sepsis usually develops from blood poisoning and involves a dramatic reaction by the body's immune system.

If not treated quickly it can lead to organ failure or death.

Early symptoms can include a high temperature and a fast heartbeat.


The Intensive Care Society recently launched a campaign to raise awareness of sepsis to avoid what it says are thousands of preventable deaths.

There are 37,000 deaths a year in the UK because of sepsis, compared with just more than 35,000 from lung cancer and 16,000 from bowel cancer.

The society, along with the UK Sepsis Trust, argues that there is inadequate recording of sepsis cases by hospitals and insufficient knowledge of the steps required to recognise and treat it early.

Case study
Julie Bignone

Julie Bignone nearly died because of sepsis and spent seven weeks in hospital - some of them in a critical condition.

Feeling feverish, she assumed she had a bad dose of flu. After a weekend in bed, she went to her GP and was told to come back if her condition worsened and antibiotics would be prescribed.

But later that day, with her family growing more anxious she was taken to hospital by ambulance.

Julie was found to have pneumonia in both lungs and sepsis and doctors feared she might not survive.

She only pulled through after several weeks in intensive care and heavy doses of antibiotics.

She feels now that she should have acted on her instinct early on that she was suffering from something a lot worse than flu.

Julie says: "There's a lot of scope for getting it wrong with sepsis because the symptoms are not specific enough - we need to get a system where doctors listen to patients more and allow them to have more of an opinion".

Failing antibiotics

Prof Bellamy, who is based at the Leeds Institute of Biomedical and Clinical Sciences, said: "For the first time this year I have had a couple patients for whom we had no effective antibiotic treatment, it's rare - but two years ago it would still have been regarded as a theoretical problem."

He says it is crucial to raise the profile of sepsis, and to ensure it is tackled early to give the patient the best chance of survival.

The diminishing impact of antibiotics, in his view, underlines the urgency of the task.

He said there was a "spectre emerging of moving into a post-antibiotic era".

NHS England has acknowledged the scale of the problem.

Bruce Warner, its deputy director of patient safety, said: "We know there are many preventable deaths due to sepsis each year and our top priority has to be saving those lives we can save and having as big an impact as we can."

NHS England wants to encourage greater co-ordination within hospitals to ensure sepsis is diagnosed and treated quickly.

It cited Nottingham University Hospitals Trust, which has been praised for use of laptops by staff to record patient data and symptoms and ensure they are analysed quickly by clinicians.

Hugh Pym Article written by Hugh Pym Hugh Pym Health editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Well the results of misprescribing are coming home to roost. If patients demand ABs for nearly all ailments, GPs prescribe them and then the patient doesn't finish the course, is it any surprise the ABs become ineffective?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    There is a small company called Cytosorbents that sells a product called Cytosorb that is a treatment to be used with antibiotics that is CE approved and available in the UK for the treatment of Sepsis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    it is somewhat ironic that in the example given, if her doctor had done the "wrong thing" & prescribed antibiotics for an apparent viral infection (cold/flu like) then her condition may not have got so serious. Prescribing antibiotics unnecessarily, particularly use for viral infections, is generally blamed for increased bacterial resistance to antbiotics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    We`re doomed, we`re doomed, we`re dooooooooomed

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I am just surprised that it is only just becoming a problem. When you have GPs giving out antibiotics to people who have a cold/flu which is a virus and antibiotics are as helpful as a spanner. Of course bacteria has just been getting a vaccination against antibiotics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    There is probably a cure out here for every human ailment there is - just that the companies that make such medications do not want us to have them for we are expendable and their commodity.

    They cannot afford to heal us 100% as without sick people they would have no market.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    The drug resistant bacteria are not just a UK problem. In many countries antibiotics can be obtained without prescription and they are taken for any ailment. This is a global problem and needs a global solution before it is too late.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Pharmaceutical companies are there to make money. There may well be treatments based on bacteriophages that could be developed, as commented previously, but until governments take responsibility for underwriting treatments that drug companies won't, things will never progress. That is the big problem with applying business models when assessing university research on "income" it could generate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Abx aren't the only important treatment in sepsis.
    Additionally, when a bacteria becomes resistant to an Abx, it must do so at a cost of something else. It shifts these fine tuned organisms into something less fine tuned, making it susceptible to other Abx, and also the host immune defense.

    Resistance isn't black and white, nor is simply additive

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    It amazes me that money can be found to put half the population on statins, that probably don't need them anyway, but money can't be found for research into new/more effective antibiotics?
    Economics of the madhouse!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    No-one in this government will do anything to speed along research as that would mean using money that has been earmarked for their pals to hive off the profitable parts of the NHS

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    A major issue is the cost of clinical trials to make sure antibiotics are safe. That's what costs billions and why most drugs are eye-wateringly expensive. If I were sick with an incurable infection, I'd jump at the chance to be a guinea pig and take an drug under development- I'd die anyway. Maybe making that legal will make the drug companies less choosy about which new drugs they take to trial.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    In 1993 whilst living in Florida, USA, I developed sepsis and was given Augmentin. I remember at one point thinking I was more shocked at being so unwell I was 'too sick to be afraid' than I was concerned at overhearing the nursing team discussing how very close to death I was. Antibiotic resistant now? Terrifying, horrible news!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Ok something needs to be done and since pharmaceutical companies wont act then the govt should. How about reallocating the £50 billion being spent on HS2 which no one wants to developing new antibiotics which we could then market to other countries to recover the costs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    What is needed is govt sponsored support of science as it is clear there is market failure because private companies see no profit in research. EU countries could fund & organise the research which would share the cost.

    There are already alternatives; bacteriophage for starters.Eastern European countries did/do use bacteriophage but because Western companies could not patent they did not invest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    @ Alex the hock player: Pharmaceutical companies, like all limited companies, are there to make money. Even if there were a miracle antibiotic discovered, NIHCE wouldn't prescribe it on the grounds of cost. And this government will do nothing until Cameron or one of his cronies is directly impacted by drug-resistant infections.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Hopefully this will kick-start the rather selfish pharmaceutical companies to invest in the development of antibiotics. The science is there, there are thousands of keen biochemical and chemistry graduates looking for PhD's in the area, all they need is the support and funding,

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I studied genetics and microbiology back in the 80 's at university. I remember discussing the increased none needed use/ poor use of antibiotics, for viral issues or not finishing a course etc, helping to render them useless for more serious issues. It is a very scary thought that this might occur sooner rather than later.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Sepsis is the biggest killer of 'reasonably healthy people' in the world. Cancer indicates bad lifestyle habits... Heart disease indicates bad dietary habits... Stroke indicates a lack of preventative measures to guard against it (such as aspirin dosages daily)...

    Whereas sepsis will kill you within hours and it can affect anyone. Something needs to be done to find an alternative to antibiotics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Very worrying - we need immediate research to find alternatives. I saw prog about using crocodile blood ... any avenues need to be researched or we return to horrendous health of earlier this century.


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