A killer we can defeat with just a few words
NEXT month is Breast Cancer Awareness month. In fact, it is the 25th anniversary of the pink ribbon, that potent little symbol which pops up on coats and jackets in October.
The power of the pink symbol is extraordinary: from woolly pink hats in Asda to posh moisturisers from Elemis, charity walks to glitzy fashion shows, the charity Breast Cancer Care – through dogged campaigning and fundraising – has lassoed itself to the public consciousness.
Other illnesses, it must be said, are not so lucky. I’m ashamed to say that until a friend of a friend died after contracting sepsis, I had never even heard of the condition. And yet it is a terrifying and silent killer, arising when the body’s response to an infection damages its own tissues and organs.
It can, and frequently does, lead to shock, multiple organ failure and death, particularly if it is not recognised early. Sepsis affects around 20,000 Scots each year, killing an estimated 4,000 of them.
In comparison, there are around 4,600 new cases of breast cancer each year, and heightened campaigning, increased breast screening and early diagnosis mean that survival rates have never been higher. In short: awareness works.
So why, then, has the Scottish Government dismissed calls for a nationwide awareness campaign? And why on earth has Health Secretary Shona Robison rejected a call from the Scottish parliament’s public petitions committee to warn more of us about an illness that claims so many lives?
This week, on World Sepsis Day (unlike breast cancer, sepsis only merits one day), the Scottish Daily Mail launched its End the Sepsis Scandal, a campaign to raise awareness. Six health boards across Scotland had backed calls for a public education drive, saying improved knowledge about symptoms would slash the number falling seriously ill.
Health professionals are desperate for more of us to understand what sepsis is. ‘We cannot be complacent about sepsis and are constantly striving to develop systems which give the best chance of avoiding tragedies that occur when sepsis is unrecognised,’ said NHS Highland in its submission to the Scottish parliament.
Because the truth is, unlike breast cancer, sepsis is a condition about which many of us are ignorant.
Writing this week in the Mail, Lord Ashcroft revealed that until he spent 19 days in intensive care after sepsis ‘came within a whisker’ of claiming his life, he too had been blissfully unaware of the symptoms and just how many lives sepsis takes.
Now he works with the UK Sepsis Trust, to which he has donated money, in the hope of raising awareness.
Here then, are the symptoms of sepsis, which usually starts as a minor bacterial, fungal or viral infection: high or low body temperature, chills and shivering, fast breathing or a fast heartbeat, producing less urine, breathlessness, mottled clammy skin, dizziness, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting.
It might not be a pretty pink ribbon, but sharing this information could just save lives. What a pity the Scottish Government doesn’t agree.