Sexual and reproductive health

Shining a spotlight on maternal and neonatal sepsis: World Sepsis Day 2017

WHO calls for prevention of life-threatening condition

12 September 2017: Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that arises when the body’s response to infection causes injury to its own tissues and organs. As infections frequently complicate serious diseases, sepsis is a final common pathway to death from both communicable and non-communicable diseases around the world. If sepsis develops during pregnancy, while or after giving birth, or after an abortion, it is called maternal sepsis. Sepsis in newborn babies is called neonatal sepsis.

In the labour ward of a hospital in Bangladesh, a doctor examines a pregnant woman before her delivery.
In the labour ward of a hospital in Bangladesh, a doctor examines a pregnant woman before her delivery.
Ismail Ferdous/Photoshare

Despite being highly preventable, maternal and neonatal sepsis continues to be a major cause of death and morbidity for pregnant or recently pregnant women and newborn babies. Infections are the primary cause of approximately 35 000 maternal deaths every year. As a primary or contributing cause, sepsis can be associated with up to 100 000 maternal deaths every year. Neonatal sepsis kills around 1 million newborn babies every year.

WHO Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has recorded a special video message to call for greater measures to be taken to improve recognition, diagnosis and treatment of sepsis, and particularly maternal and neonatal sepsis.

WHO and World Sepsis Day

On the eve of World Sepsis Day 2017, WHO and HRP have joined with the Global Sepsis Alliance to host the ‘World Sepsis Congress Spotlight: Maternal and Neonatal Sepsis’, a free online congress shining a spotlight on these neglected aspects of sepsis.

Online Congress

Risk factors

When health facilities are overcrowded and poorly resourced women are at greater risk of infection and sepsis. Women who undergo caesarean sections in such conditions are at even greater risk. Health workers are also often unaware of the signs and symptoms of sepsis and so are unable to recognise the condition and treat it in time.

Sepsis can be prevented

One of the greatest tragedies of the thousands of deaths caused by sepsis, is that they could have been easily prevented. As Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus outlines in his video address, we know what can be done to reduce the risk of sepsis:

  • access to clean water and sanitation;
  • access to quality care during pregnancy and birth;
  • responsible and timely access to the right medicines;
  • proper infection prevention and control in hospitals and clinics.

In addition, health workers need to be adequately trained and skilled to be able to recognise the signs of sepsis and to treat the condition effectively.

WHO commitment

Building on the resolution passed by WHO Member States at the 2017 World Health Assembly to address the prevention, diagnosis and management of sepsis, WHO is playing a major role in the Global Initiative on Maternal and Neonatal Sepsis.

Preventing and treating sepsis across the world

In addition, WHO and HRP are working with partners to support a large multi-country study on maternal sepsis in over 500 health facilities in 54 countries, in order to better understand the prevalence of maternal sepsis, and also how it is prevented and treated across the world.