The study, published online in March in Lancet Infectious Diseases, is one the most comprehensive studies of the burden of sepsis in the United States.

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that occurs when an infection spreads through the bloodstream and injures the body’s own tissues and organs. It can lead to organ failure, shock and death. The worldwide incidence of sepsis is estimated to be 18 million cases per year, and it is the most common cause of death in people who have been hospitalized. National statistics estimate that approximately 20 to 35 percent of people with severe sepsis die, and that number climbs to as high as 70 percent of those with sepsis shock.

“This paper draws attention to the very real risks of sepsis and its impacts upon the health of the community,” said Henry Wang, M.D., professor and vice chair for Research in the UAB Department of Emergency Medicine and the study’s senior author. “These results suggest that our efforts to prevent sepsis need to be enhanced. Sepsis is a ‘ninja’ disease — it quietly sneaks up on unsuspecting victims and rapidly causes overwhelming illness and death. It’s one of the biggest draws on national health care resources. Yet few people are aware that sepsis kills more people each year than heart attacks and cancer. Many people have never even heard of sepsis.”

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To examine the effectiveness of three classifications for identifying high-risk infection patients, the research team needed data from many patients affected by sepsis. They employed the large-scale, ongoing REGARDS study — Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke — to develop a suitable sample size of potential subjects. REGARDS is a nationwide study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and led by investigators at the UAB School of Public Health.

Analyzing more than 30,000 participants in REGARDS led to a cohort of 3,400 who had been diagnosed with a serious infection. The investigators looked at the incidence of sepsis using three different classification systems: systemic inflammatory response syndrome, or SIRS; elevated sepsis-related organ failure assessment score, or SOFA; and an elevated quick SOFA score, known as qSOFA. They also examined death rates for these three categories of sepsis.

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