New Tasmanian sepsis awareness group formed

TEAM: Sepsis Awareness members Carolyn and Philip Welch, Sallyann Geale and Debbie McDonough. Picture: Phillip Biggs
TEAM: Sepsis Awareness members Carolyn and Philip Welch, Sallyann Geale and Debbie McDonough. Picture: Phillip Biggs

Infections are an unwanted part of life, but they can also signal an abrupt end to it.

Sepsis occurs when the body’s response to an infection damages its own tissues and organs.

Known for being difficult to diagnose and treat, the condition claims more lives annually in Australia than breast and prostate cancer combined. 

Its reputation as a silent killer became a reality for Launceston’s Sallyann Geale, who lost friend Janine Davis to the disease in 2016.

She said the lead up to the death will always be with her.

“As a mother of two adult boys, she was a healthy person who was always out and about,” she said.

“After the initial infection, she wasn’t quite getting better.

“She began making some improvement, but then got sick again and died in the space of 10 hours.

“It was very swift.”

The sudden loss led Mrs Geale to form Sepsis Awareness Tasmania, which launched in April.

Designed to educate the community about the true impact of the condition, the group consists of Tasmanians who have lost family members or friends to sepsis.

While 18,000 Australians develop sepsis annually, the 2016 National Awareness Survey indicated 60 per cent of the population had not heard of it before.

Of those who had heard of it, only 14 per cent could name one of its symptoms, and only 4 per cent were aware it had a death rate of one in three.

Mrs Geale said her own research revealed there was “a huge lack of knowledge in the community about sepsis”. 

“Whenever I talk to someone about sepsis, one of their first questions is what is it,” she said.

“In the past, people have talked about septicaemia and blood poisoning, but their understanding seemed to be that they were types of infection which got into the bloodstream.

In the past, people have talked about Septicaemia and blood poisoning, but their understanding seemed to be that they were types of infection which got into the blood stream.

Sallyann Geale

“Sepsis is more a malfunction of the immune system, where instead of fighting an infection, it does the opposite.”

The establishment of Sepsis Awareness Tasmania comes five years after Royal Hobart Hospital introduced the state’s first ever sepsis protocol.

A working group comprised of representatives from the general medicine, intensive care and emergency departments came together in an effort to better manage sepsis at the site.

PROTOCOL PROGRESS: Burnie's North West Regional Hospital has adopted a sepsis protocol.

PROTOCOL PROGRESS: Burnie's North West Regional Hospital has adopted a sepsis protocol.

The Royal Hobart Hospital emergency department protocol was officially launched on World Sepsis Day, on September 13, 2013. Chairman for the group, emergency specialist Dr Juan Carlos Ascencio-Lane, said early detection and education were the primary objectives.

“We rolled out initiatives to give everyone from medical students to nurses and paramedics an understanding of what sepsis was,” he said.

“It was initially designed for people over 18, and there were strict guidelines upon entering into it.

“We managed to significantly reduce the time in which patients believed to be septic were given antibiotics, which made a difference.

“It had been four hours, but it became 16 minutes.”

Launceston General Hospital has since made a modified version of the Royal Hobart Hospital’s emergency department protocol.

Dr Ascensio-Lane also played a part in the establishment of a similar guidelines at Burnie’s North West Regional Hospital.

He said it was important to continue what was started at Royal Hobart Hospital.

“We do recognise there is a lot more to be done,” he said.

“The goal would be not just to educate emergency doctors, but also general practitioners as well as patients and their families.

“All of that would be to get people presenting to their GP a lot sooner.”

While there are infection control processes in place at Tasmanian hospitals, there are no specific programs to deal with sepsis, such as the Sepsis Kills initiative in NSW.

University of Sydney Professor Simon Finfer said it was about taking action against “preventable deaths”. 

“People are dying unnecessarily, people are having long-term healthcare problems because we have not been getting onto the treatment of sepsis as quickly as we should,” he said.

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