A call for a national campaign to raise awareness of sepsis has been rejected by the Scottish government, BBC Scotland can reveal.
Campaigners described the decision as “absurd” and “complacent” and said ministers were putting lives at risk.
Sepsis kills about 3,500 people every year in Scotland and is caused when the immune system overreacts to infection.
Early identification is critical and treatment within an hour is vital to reducing the death rate.
The Scottish Parliament’s public petitions committee had previously said a national awareness campaign was “appropriate” and asked the Scottish government if it would take it forward.
The government has now responded by saying it does not consider a public awareness campaign “necessary at this time”.
It said its officials would meet sepsis charity FEAT (the Fiona Elizabeth Agnew Trust) and explore other ways to raise awareness.
Health Secretary Shona Robison told BBC Scotland that the NHS’s patient safety programme had been doing a lot of good work to reduce sepsis deaths, including getting treatment to patients within the first “golden hour” after diagnosis.
The latest estimated figures for sepsis suggest 44,000 people a year are dying in the UK from the condition and the Scottish government quotes a figure of 3,500, as a proportion of this mortality.
Its official statistician, the ISD, said problems with “coding” of sepsis deaths meant it was “currently difficult for us to define and accurately report on a complete picture”.
The UK Sepsis Trust says the actual figure could be much higher.
Craig Stobo, who started FEAT after his wife Fiona – a Bo’ness GP – died in Edinburgh five years ago, said the Scottish government had done a lot of good work on sepsis but its decision not to run a national awareness campaign was “a public health scandal”.
He said: “It is not acceptable at this stage to be complacent and it is not acceptable for them to take this line when the incidence of sepsis is still increasing.
“Frankly, tonight, tomorrow and next week there will be people dying because of their inaction.”
Health Secretary Shona Robison said there was a lot of good work being done in the NHS
He added: “Sepsis is a medical emergency. Too many people are still not aware of it. They need to act now. Every day they fail to act people will unnecessarily die.
“It is indiscriminate, it is sudden and devastating.
“The more people are aware of it, the better the chances of it being detected earlier and of treatment being successful.”
The health secretary said: “Sepsis is a huge challenge for the NHS but huge progress has been made through the patient safety programme, with a reduction in sepsis mortality of 21% since 2012.
“There is a lot of work going on to ensure that the ‘golden hour’ of treatment is taken and the interventions that we know can save lives happen within that hour.”
Ms Robison said she had worked with FEAT to raise awareness of sepsis and would discuss how they could do that in the future.
What is sepsis?
ANIMATED HEALTHCARE LTD/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Sepsis, also known as septicaemia or blood poisoning, is the body’s reaction to an infection.
It starts with an infection that can come from anywhere – even a contaminated cut or insect bite.
Normally, your immune system kicks in to fight the infection and stop it spreading.
But if the infection manages to spread quickly round the body, then the immune system will launch a massive immune response to fight it.
This can also be a problem as the immune response can have catastrophic effects on the body, leading to septic shock, organ failure and even death.
Sepsis needs to be spotted and treated quickly, usually with antibiotics, before it spreads.
Prof Kevin Rooney, a consultant in intensive care medicine at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, told BBC Scotland: “For every hour’s delay in antibiotics, your mortality from sepsis increases by almost 8%, so if we can get people in the community to the hospitals quicker, that will surely make a difference.”
Very low awareness of sepsis
Mr Robertson said he was “astonished” at some of the responses from NHS boards
Jim Robertson, from Glasgow, lost his wife Liz to sepsis last year.
Mr Robertson believes she could still be alive if she had been diagnosed sooner.
He said the first time he heard the word sepsis was after his wife’s post-mortem examination.
“I didn’t really know anything about it at all, apart from that it was blood poisoning and I discovered there was a very, very low awareness of sepsis and the size of sepsis in Scotland – in fact in the whole of the UK,” he said.
Mr Robertson complained to the Scottish Public Service Ombudsman about his wife’s care at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow.
Jim Robertson’s wife Liz died from sepsis last year
It ruled that the hospital had “failed to provide reasonable care and treatment” and “failed to communicate adequately” with him about his wife’s condition.
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has apologised to Mr Robertson for its failings.
Earlier this year Mr Robertson started a petition to the Scottish Parliament to back a national awareness campaign.
In written submissions to the parliament some NHS boards objected to the move.
NHS Dumfries and Galloway said a public campaign specifically about sepsis “may actually cause alarm and increase unnecessary attendance at GP practices or A&E departments”.
NHS Forth Valley’s submission read: “It is necessary to consider the unintended consequences of inappropriately increasing public awareness.”
Other boards including Tayside, Grampian and Greater Glasgow and Clyde all said they would welcome a national public awareness campaign – something experts believe would save lives.
What are the symptoms?
The UK Sepsis Trust lists six symptoms to be aware of:
extreme shivering or muscle pain
passing no urine in a day
skin mottled or discoloured
Symptoms in young children include:
looks mottled, bluish or pale
very lethargic or difficult to wake
abnormally cold to touch
breathing very fast
a rash that does not fade when you press it
a seizure or convulsion