Muhammad Ali was a powerful advocate for people with Parkinson’s disease after his diagnosis at the age of 42. But his recent death due to sepsis — and his family’s decision to make it known — continues to raise awareness for a medical condition that takes more than 258,000 American lives every year. But until Patty Duke’s death in March, sepsis was little-discussed in mainstream media and rarely tied to a globally known celebrity.
"By his family's disclosing sepsis as the cause of death, Muhammad Ali has likely saved countless lives by raising awareness of sepsis, a medical emergency which requires rapid treatment to save lives," said Thomas Heymann, executive director of the advocacy group Sepsis Alliance, in a statement.
Ali was initially hospitalized Thursday with respiratory symptoms but was described as being in “fair” condition, according to a family spokesman. One day later he was dying, and daughter Hana Ali said in his final hour that all of his organs had failed except for his heart. A spokesman for his family revealed that the Champ died from "septic shock due to unspecified natural causes."
Organ failure is a common outcome for sepsis, which happens when a body overreacts to infection, triggering organ dysfunction. The condition can lead to organ failure and death, and can leave survivors with permanent organ damage or amputated limbs. It is most common in people with lowered immune systems, such as the elderly, infants and those with serious illnesses like AIDS or cancer. People recovering from a severe burn or wound are also at higher risk for sepsis through skin infection, although sepsis can result from even a minor scrape or infection.
The sooner it’s spotted, the more chance doctors have of treating the condition successfully. Treatment involves addressing the underlying infection, supporting the body’s organs and then preventing drops in blood pressure and oxygen levels. But one of the reasons it’s so difficult to catch and treat is that sepsis has many of the same symptoms as a regular infection that could go away on its own. Lack of sepsis awareness can lead to a deadly mix of missed symptoms and care that is too little, too late.
Sepsis affects more than one million Americans every year, and there is some evidence to suggest that incidence is increasing. It was the primary or secondary cause of 1.6 million hospitalizations in 2009, a number that's more than double the sepsis-related hospitalizations in 1993, according to a report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
Simply knowing the signs of sepsis and saying the word aloud to your doctor -- triggering him or her to consider the possibility -- could help you save your own life, notes the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.