Today’s papers are filled with headlines relating to the tragic loss of baby William Mead: the one-year-old baby boy who died in 2014 after his chest infection was repeatedly misdiagnosed.
His infection developed into a lung abscess, which in turn led to the sepsis – or blood poisoning – that killed him.
But what is sepsis and would you know how to spot the signs?
An NHS England report published this week, found 16 blunders responsible for the death of baby William Mead.
The key findings centre around flaws in the emergency NHS helpline 111, which can miss life-threatening symptoms, as most call handlers aren’t medically trained, says the report.
This is what happened to baby William: after getting sick, his mother took him to the GP several times – but at no point did they succeed in diagnosing the chest infection that was causing him to be unwell.
After getting worse, William’s mother called 111 for help.
The report revealed that this call was poorly dealt with by the call adviser, whose tick-box questions failed to cover William’s loud crying or the drop in body temperature from very high to low – an indicator of sepsis.
Flaws in the 111 system
According to NHS England, the tick-box style system, called NHS Pathways:
“Does not appear to be sensitive to a number of key factors … specifically, the deteriorating signs and symptoms of the paediatric patient, the assessment on pain, and sepsis red flags”.
According to media reports, NHS England now plans to issue warnings to health chiefs to act on the dangerous flaws discovered in the 111 system.
Talking to ITV news today, William’s mum said:
“After today, I hope that there is not a doctor or a parent in the land who doesn’t know what sepsis is”.
What is sepsis?
Sepsis is a common and potentially life-threatening condition triggered by an infection.
The body’s immune system goes into overdrive, setting off a series of reactions including widespread inflammation, swelling and blood clotting.
This can lead to a significant decrease in blood pressure, which can mean the blood supply to vital organs such as the brain, heart and kidneys is reduced.
If not treated quickly, sepsis can eventually lead to multiple organ failure and death.
Each year in the UK, it is estimated that more than 100,000 people are admitted to hospital with sepsis – 10,000 of these are children – and around 37,000 people will die as a result of the condition.
Signs and symptoms
Early symptoms of sepsis usually develop quickly and can include:
a high temperature (fever)
chills and shivering
a fast heartbeat
In some cases, symptoms of more severe sepsis or septic shock (when your blood pressure drops to a dangerously low level) develop soon after. These can include:
feeling dizzy or faint
confusion or disorientation
nausea and vomiting
cold, clammy and pale or mottled skin
When to get help
Dr Ron Daniels, NHS consultant in critical care and anaesthesia and chief executive and co-founder of The UK Sepsis Trust, says that any of the following are RED FLAGS for taking a child to hospital immediately:
1. A high fever. OR a low fever, which persists and is accompanied with abnormal (listless) behaviour, quick breathing, rapid heartbeat, skin that is COLD to the touch.
2. Any skin colour changes whatsoever. A rash. Mottled/marbled skin. Becoming very pale or slightly blue.
3. Your child becoming unresponsive and acting out of character – not able to make eye contact, not wanting to move, not showing interest in anything, not speaking or conversing.
If you spot any of these signs, don’t go the doctors. Don’t call 111. Go straight to A&E.
Who’s at risk?
Anyone can develop sepsis after an injury or minor infection, although some people are more vulnerable.
People most at risk of sepsis include those:
with a medical condition or receiving medical treatment that weakens their immune system
who are already in hospital with a serious illness
who are very young or very old
who have just had surgery or who have wounds or injuries as a result of an accident
Is it treatable?
If sepsis is detected early and has not yet affected vital organs, it may be possible to treat the infection at home with antibiotics.
Most people who have sepsis detected at this stage will make a full recovery.
The NHS England press office was today unable to issue advice on whether or not to call 111 if your child were to fall ill out of hours today, prior to the recommended changes being made to the 111 system. They have, however, issued this statement:
“The tragic death of William Mead highlights the vital need for everyone, including GPs, out of hours services and NHS 111, to better recognise the early signs of sepsis.
To help reduce the risk of any other family going through such suffering, experts from Sepsis UK and the Royal College of Paediatrics and child health and the NHS are already working to prevent future similar tragic events.
We have also recognised the need for GP out of hours and 111 services to work seamlessly, and they are now being combined on a rolling basis across England”.