He said antibiotics were the most effective treatment for sepsis, but that delays in getting to hospital increased the risk of death and disability.
“Sepsis is a time-critical medical emergency,” he said.
Sepsis is a potentially-fatal blood-borne infection that triggers a response from the body’s immune system that can damage internal organs. Its symptoms include fever, chills, rapid heart rate or breathing, a rash, or confusion.
The researchers estimate 5000 people die from sepsis each year and 18,000 cases reach intensive care units of Australian hospitals, yet a recent survey carried out in part by the George Institute found only 40 per cent of Australians had heard of the condition, and only 14 per cent could identify the symptoms.
Children and Indigenous Australians are among the most at risk, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Northern Territory having the highest death rates from the blood infection.
Bu researchers warn that the true number of deaths and cases of sepsis may be higher as information on the condition is not accurately collected and coded by hospitals, and countries with improved monitoring have observed higher infection rates compared with previous estimates.
They said the development of electronic health records could make it easier to identify sepsis cases in real time and assess the incidence across the community.
The call for a national campaign comes as separate research published in the Medical Journal of Australia on Monday warned that there was a “black hole” in the surveillance of superbugs in Australia because of current testing methods.
Associate Professor Deborah Williamson, deputy director of the Doherty Institute’s Microbiological Diagnostic Unit Public Health Laboratory, said testing methods were able to detect infections, but that further tests to determine whether the sample was resistant to antibiotics were not often carried out for some bacteria.
“There is a trade-off between a rapid diagnostic test for the patient and collecting a culture for resistance surveillance,” she said.
Professor Williamson said there was currently no incentive for laboratories to conduct resistance testing and that a co-ordinated national effort was required to improve superbug surveillance.
The paper highlighted four emerging superbugs: CPE, a bacterial infection with 603 cases recorded in Australian hospitals in 2018; Candida Auris, a yeast infection; a drug-resistant salmonella first reported in a Pakistani province; and an antibiotic-resistant strain of gonorrhea of which there were two cases in Australia in 2018.
In the case of gonorrhea diagnoses, she said only 20 per cent of notifications in Australia had a bacterial culture associated with them that allowed for resistance testing. “That mean for 80 per cent we don’t know if they are resistant or not,” Professor Williamson said.
Public health efforts were also being hampered by an inability to share information across jurisdictions due to disparate privacy laws and data-sharing agreements, she said.
In the event of a superbug infection arising in Melbourne or Sydney, she said, improved surveillance in both states would ensure information could be shared in near real-time “instead of one jurisdiction dealing with it and letting the other know what happened”.
“That could be days or weeks down the track, but which time a superbug could have emerged and spread. These bacteria and viruses don’t respect state borders and they don’t respect international borders either.”
Craig Butt joined The Age in 2011 and specialises in data-driven journalism. In addition, he helms the popular Melbourne Express blog on Thursdays and Fridays.