Thursday, 10 December 2020
In 2017 four-year-old Mia Wilkinson was a happy, active and healthy young girl who loved swimming and gymnastics. In October that year, Mia suddenly became critically ill and ended up in an intensive care unit on life support. Mia had sepsis in response to a bacterial infection. Against all odds, she fought hard and survived this deadly disease. But, as a result, her arms were amputated below her elbows and her legs were amputated below her knees. This brave young girl continues to amaze her friends and family with her resilience and strength.
Mia was one of the lucky ones. Every year in Australia, an estimated 18,000 adults are treated in an intensive care unit for sepsis. Of these, almost 5,000 will die. That's more than one person killed from sepsis every two hours. Shockingly, this is more than twice the number of deaths caused each year by road traffic accidents. Of those who survive, around half will be left with a permanent disability or impaired function. For children, sepsis is the leading cause of death and disability, according to Queensland Health, and yet we hear very little about it. Around half of all Australians haven't been heard of sepsis let alone the fact that people with the illness require urgent medical attention, just as they would with stroke, for example.
What is sepsis and how can we prevent it? Sepsis is the body's immune system overreacting to an infection, which can harm organs and tissue. It has been referred to as a silent killer because it can be extremely difficult to identify in the early stages. Symptoms such as laboured breathing, rapid heart rate, lethargy or confusion can be suggestive of less serious illnesses, like the flu. A misdiagnosis can be fatal because every hour of delay in getting proper antibiotic treatment increases the risk of a person with sepsis dying by between four and eight per cent. Professor Simon Finfer, a professorial fellow in the critical care and trauma division at The George Institute for Global Health, called sepsis a genuine time-critical emergency.
Little Mia Wilkinson was initially diagnosed with a gastro bug by her GP and sent home. A day later, her parents noticed she seemed incoherent and disoriented and took Mia to an emergency department. There she was diagnosed with influenza B and viral myositis and sent home again. Later that day, Mia developed a rash on her legs and was rushed back to hospital, where medical staff finally realised it was sepsis. Thanks to the perseverance of Mia's parents, she is still with us today. But the more awareness we can raise of this silent killer, the greater the chance of saving lives and preventing thousands of others from enduring what brave little Mia and her family have gone through.