Deadly sepsis: Insights from Dr Michelle Scoullar

Burnet Institute

20 October, 2017

You can help support our development of a life-saving neonatal sepsis test. Find out how.

Dr Michelle Scoullar was still a junior doctor when she first saw a baby with suspected sepsis.

Sepsis - the life-threatening reaction of the body’s immune system to infection- is a medical emergency which can be treated if diagnosed early enough. But left untreated, it can worsen rapidly and lead to devastating outcomes.

“A baby was deteriorating in front of me showing symptoms of sepsis, but there was no on-the-spot test for me to be sure,” Dr Scoullar said.

Now a Principal Investigator on Burnet’s flagship Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies (HMHB) program, Dr Scoullar is working with colleagues to develop a simple test for neonatal sepsis that will save lives.

In Australia, sepsis causes more than 3000 deaths each year. In resource-constrained communities where Burnet works such as in Papua New Guinea, the death rates are suspected to be even higher.

Why is sepsis so deadly if left untreated?

Sepsis is hard to diagnose, as it may be almost asymptomatic. But a patient’s chance of survival drops by eight per cent for every hour they are without treatment.

When faced with her first case of suspected sepsis, Dr Scoullar administered the current standard test and started a course of antibiotics. Then it was a matter of monitoring in hospital and waiting the long two to five days for test results.

But to carry out that standard test, Dr Scoullar needed to take a blood sample, perform a lumbar puncture to take spinal fluid, and insert a needle into the tiny baby’s bladder to collect urine. All this whilst also explaining the need for the invasive procedures to worried parents, as the baby’s prognosis worsened with every hour.

Burnet’s development of a simple, fast diagnostic test.

Situations like those faced by Dr Scoullar and the baby’s family are driving Burnet’s development of a test to diagnose sepsis in just 20 minutes.

This neonatal sepsis point-of-care test will use a simple lateral flow test format, giving frontline health workers the ability to quickly diagnose and treat this deadly illness, especially in resource-constrained areas.

Globally, there are more than 30 million episodes of sepsis each year. In developed countries like Australia, fear of life-threatening sepsis means many babies are treated unnecessarily with antibiotics, leading to concerns that over treatment may lead to further drug resistance and the rise of superbugs, as well as effects on the ‘healthy’ gut bacteria so early in the baby’s development.

But in resource-poor countries the complex and expensive testing regime is simply not available. Babies with sepsis often die or suffer lifelong disabilities.

“In high income countries the diagnostic test Burnet is developing will be a really useful tool to determine which babies don’t need antibiotics – then we can monitor them,” Dr Scoullar said.

“In lower-income countries, if the baby has been born in the bush or far from a health centre, this test could be used. If the test is negative the fieldworker can confidently know that they don’t need to send the family and baby long distances to a rural or urban hospital, which can easily cost a family a month’s income for travel expenses and treatment. They could instead monitor the baby locally.

“If it’s positive you can explain to the family why they really need to go.”

How you can support our diagnostic development. Donate today!

Find out more about our sepsis test, and give a gift to our special Save Lives From Sepsis Appeal today.

Sepsis can strike anyone, but babies, young children and the elderly are the most vulnerable. With your support, saving lives starts today.

To follow the progress of Burnet’s Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies program click here, Like our HMHB Facebook page or follow us on Twitter.

Contact Details

For more information in relation to this news article, please contact:

Doctor Michelle Scoullar

HMHB Principal Investigator; PhD candidate




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