Sepsis is bigger risk than meningitis, parents warned, as cases among youngsters rocket

Sarah Knapton
Hospital admissions have soared over two years  - PA

Hospital admissions for deadly sepsis have risen by one third in young people in two years, NHS figures show, leading experts to warn parents that it is now a bigger threat than meningitis. 

New NHS Digital data shows for all ages, cases have doubled from 350,344 recorded hospital admissions with a first or second diagnosis of sepsis in 2017/18, up from 169,125 two years earlier.

However for children and young people aged 24 and under, there were 48,647 admissions in 2017/18, a 32 per cent rise on the 36,847 hospital admissions for sepsis for this age group in the same period.

Health experts said the rise was partly driven by an increased awareness of sepsis, but also the growth in antibiotic resistance which meant drugs which used to stop the infection no longer work.

Around four in 10 cases of sepsis are caused by the food-borne bug e.coli but, antibiotics are now useless for around 40 per cent of strains. 

Common urinary tract infections are also now difficult to treat, and doctors are often warned not to give antibiotics for UTIs meaning patients can deteriorate fast. Sepsis now kills around 52,000 people a year in the UK.

Dr Ron Daniels, chief executive of the UK Sepsis Trust, said parents should stay on high alert for the symptoms of mottled, clod, bluish or pale skin, lethargy, fast breathing and a rash that does not fade. 

“What this means is that parents need to continue to be aware of meningitis, but to arguably be even more aware of sepsis as it affects far more children and can be equally deadly,” he said.

“A decade or two ago, infections such as urinary tract infections would be controlled by simple antibiotics - not so today.

“If the antibiotic doesn't begin to control the infection, it may become more complicated - ideal breeding grounds for the onset of sepsis.”

Sepsis develops when the chemicals the immune system releases into the bloodstream to fight an infection cause deadly inflammation throughout the entire body, triggering changes that can damage multiple organ systems.

The new figures obtained by Press Association, also showed that there were 38,401 admissions among those aged four and under, up from 30,981 in 2015/16, a rise of 23 per cent.

And as well as young people, the increasingly ageing population also means more older people are now suffering from sepsis than before.

Among people aged 75 to 84 the rise in admissions more than doubled from 32,846 in 2015/16, to 78,397 in 2017/18. Among those aged 85 and over, there were 67,897 admissions in 2017/18, up from 25,014 in 2015/16.

“The growing and ageing population, the just expectation of more invasive healthcare at greater extremes of life and the currently unquantifiable impact of antibiotic resistance,” added Dr Daniels.

“A simple urinary tract infection could develop into a complex case in which the kidneys are also involved. Such complex infections, and any infection remaining under-treated, increase the risk of sepsis developing.”

Celia Ingham Clark, medical director for clinical effectiveness at NHS England and NHS Improvement, said cutting down on the over-prescribing of antibiotics could help.

“The NHS has become much better at spotting and treating sepsis quickly over the last few years, so even though more cases are being diagnosed, the chances of dying from it are falling.

“As part of the NHS Long Term Plan our work on sepsis and antimicrobial resistance is coming together to make sure that patients with serious infections get the right antibiotic at the right time, and antibiotics are not used where they won't help, so we can reduce the risk of infections in the future becoming resistant to antibiotics.”

The figures come as the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) A&E departments were struggling to ensure youngsters suspected of having the condition were seen quickly enough and then reviewed by a senior doctor.