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Heart-wrenching ‘Archers’ storyline highlights sepsis danger

12:00am & Health

Popular and long-running radio drama “The Archers” has been praised for a storyline highlighting the potentially fatal infection ‘sepsis’.

Also known as blood poisoning, sepsis is the reaction to an infection in which the body attacks its own organs and tissues. If caught early it can be easily and effectively treated, but failure to spot the symptoms and seek urgent medical attention can lead to lasting harm and even death.

Devotees of BBC Radio 4 drama “The Archers” were left reeling after Sunday’s omnibus episode, which saw one of its characters, young mother Nic Grundy, die from sepsis just days after cutting her arm on a rusty nail. Heart-wrenching scenes included her saying goodbye to her husband before she passed away, leaving him to cope alone with their three children and stepson.

Although fictitious, the scenes and suddenness of Nic’s deterioration and death mirror reality after the scriptwriters worked closely with medical professionals and the charity UK Sepsis Trust. Its chief executive, Dr Ron Daniels, said the dramatic events in the radio soap were “all too familiar”.

He added: “Thousands of real people in the UK develop sepsis in exactly the same way each year and have their lives torn apart by the condition. It’s fantastic that The Archers is raising the profile of a condition which affects so many people, and yet is so poorly recognised.”

Sepsis kills around 44,000 people in the UK every year, more than breast cancer, bowel and prostate cancer combined. If the name sounds unfamiliar, you might know it better as ‘septicaemia’, although the two terms are subtly different. Septicaemia is the infection – the bacteria in the blood – while sepsis is the body’s reaction to it, in which its own immune system malfunctions by attacking healthy organs and tissue as well as the infection.

Sepsis can develop out of any infection, from something as simple as a contaminated cut or scrape to urinary infections or even dental treatment which becomes infected. Because the infection spreads rapidly through the bloodstream and is not confined to a single site, the body over-reacts and attacks its own vital organs, causing them to shut down.

If sepsis is caught early, it can be treated relatively easily, but its early symptoms are often mistaken for a chest infection, gastroenteritis or flu. According to the UK Sepsis Trust, better awareness of the symptoms could save around 14,000 lives per year through earlier medical intervention. The six key symptoms of sepsis to look out for are:

  • Slurred speech or confusion
  • Extreme shivering or muscle pain
  • Passing no urine in a day
  • Severe breathlessness
  • It feels like you’re going to die
  • Skin mottled or discoloured

Symptoms in young children can include;

  • Looking mottled, bluish or pale
  • Being very lethargic and difficult to wake
  • Feeling abnormally cold to touch
  • Breathing very fast and shallow
  • Having a seizure or convulsion
  • Having a rash that does not fade when you press on it.

If you think you or a loved one might have sepsis you should seek medical advice immediately, by either calling the NHS helpline number 111 or the emergency 999 number. You should be particularly aware of any of these symptoms if they follow any event which could have caused blood poisoning, such as a cut or graze or recent medical or dental treatment.

For more information on sepsis, visit the UK Sepsis Trust website by clicking here. While the Trust has welcomed The Archers highlighting the condition, it wants to see more done to increase public awareness, including government funding for a substantial public awareness campaign and a central ‘sepsis registry’ to collect reliable and useful data.

“It is these measures that will make a difference for the 250,000 people who are harmed by sepsis every year in the UK,” said Dr Daniels.

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