Pope's Health Failing Rapidly

Bloodstream Infection Causing Organ Failure, Low Blood Pressure

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April 2, 2005 -- The Vatican says the pope is in very grave condition but is somewhat responsive to people around him. He also has developed a high fever, indicating his bloodstream infection may be worsening.

Due to the seriousness of his condition, the Vatican reported that last rites -- a Catholic sacrament -- were performed on the pontiff Thursday night. The sacrament is given to people who are seriously ill as well as to those who are near death.

The pope is reportedly suffering from a serious bloodstream infection called sepsis. Thursday, the Vatican reported the pope had very low blood pressure and went into septic shock. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls says the pope's blood pressure is still "unstable."

The pope's breathing is reportedly shallow and his kidneys are also starting to fail. These are both signs that attempts to raise the pope's blood pressure are not working.

Septic shock occurs when blood pressure drops severely. With this condition the body's organs, including the kidneys, liver, lungs, and brain, don't get enough blood supply. This can cause them to not function properly.

What Is Sepsis?

Sepsis is a severe illness caused by an overwhelming bacterial infection of the bloodstream. The bacteria produce toxins that lead to very low blood pressure.

The pope reportedly had a urinary tract infection. In most people a urinary tract infection is easily treated with antibiotics. However in people in poor medical condition, the infection may progress rapidly into the bloodstream causing life-threatening sepsis. Sepsis can occur from many other types of infections as well.

A change in mental status or fast breathing may be the earliest signs of sepsis.

How Is Sepsis Treated?

Patients with sepsis usually require monitoring in an intensive care unit (ICU). Strong antibiotics are used to help fight the infection.

In order to keep the patient's blood pressure up, fluids in the vein as well as medications that increase blood pressure are given.

If the blood pressure isn't maintained the kidneys can fail, which may require dialysis. The lungs may also fail, which would require a breathing machine in order to keep the patient alive.

For people with other medical conditions, such as the pope, the death rate can be as high as 60%.

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SOURCE: National Institutes of Health. Wire reports.
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