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Sepsis Affects Black Children Differently: Here's What You Need To Know

Feb 09, 2023 10:00AM ● By Boitumelo Masihleho

Sepsis is one of many health challenges people encounter but is rarely discussed in the media. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 1.7 million American adults get sepsis yearly. Children are especially vulnerable to the condition—more than 75,000 children in the United States are affected, and it’s the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in little ones globally. Worldwide, one-third of people who develop sepsis die. Many who do survive are left with life-changing effects. 

Sepsis is the body’s extreme response to an infection. It is a life-threatening medical emergency. Sepsis happens when an infection you already have triggered a chain reaction throughout your body. Infections that lead to sepsis most often start in the lung, urinary tract, skin, or gastrointestinal tract. Without timely treatment, sepsis can rapidly lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death. Sepsis is not contagious, however, an infection can lead to sepsis, and you can spread some infections to other people. Sepsis symptoms can be so general that it’s hard to tell if something serious is going on, especially in kids that aren’t able to communicate yet. Sepsis causes fever, a rapid heart rate, and difficulty breathing, among other symptoms. It’s a serious condition that requires swift medical treatment. Severe sepsis can lead to septic shock, a medical emergency. Septic shock is associated with a significant drop in blood pressure, organ failure, and widespread tissue damage.

According to research, in the United States, more than 75,000 children develop severe sepsis each year. Many children who survive sepsis are left with long-term problems. More than 1 in 3 children (34%) who survive experience a change in cognitive skills still at 28 days following their discharge from the hospital. Nearly half return to the hospital at least once after surviving sepsis. Immunocompromised children and children who require longer hospital stays are less likely to return to their previous quality of life after hospitalization than other children hospitalized for sepsis.


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Pediatrics, an academic journal, released new research which showed that within 30 days of their surgeries, Black children had a greater risk of suffering complications and death than White children, and were nearly 3.5 times more likely to die within that time period. In addition, Black children had an 18% greater chance of developing complications. These children also had a 7% higher likelihood of developing serious adverse events, especially bleeding that required blood transfusions and sepsis.

Studies focused on race and ethnicity have shown nearly double the incidence of sepsis in Black and Hispanic patients, compared to White, with a persistent difference after adjusting for chronic illness and neighborhood privation. Black and Hispanic patients tended to present with sepsis at a younger age. A 2011 study found that premature infants who are Black are more than twice as likely to develop sepsis and are more likely to die than non-Black infants, and Black and Hispanic kids with severe sepsis or septic shock are more likely to die than non-Hispanic white children.

There are several reasons these disparities exist, and access to care is one. A 2021 study in Pediatrics that found from 2008 to 2018; pediatric inpatient units fell 19%. This has meant several families have to travel long distances to find care for their children, especially for rural families and communities of color. Another reason for the disparities is providers’ inability to notice sepsis symptoms in Black children compared to other children. This can be a result of internal biases.

You can reduce your risk of sepsis by preventing the spread of infection. Seek immediate medical attention if you suspect that your child has sepsis, especially if your child has a known infection. Treatment for sepsis is with IV fluids and antibiotics. Other medications, such as those to raise blood pressure may be needed.

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Sepsis Alliance


 Boitumelo Masihleho is a South African digital content creator. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Rhodes University in Journalism and Media Studies and Politics and International Studies.  

She's an experienced multimedia journalist who is committed to writing balanced, informative and interesting stories on a number of topics. Boitumelo has her own YouTube channel where she shares her love for affordable beauty and lifestyle content. 

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