On race, human variation, and who gets and dies of sepsis

Jessica F. Brinkworth, J. Grace Shaw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


COVID-19 has highlighted a brutal reality known for decades, that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color bear a disproportionate burden of US annual sepsis cases. While plentiful research funds have been spent investigating genetic reasons for racial disparities in sepsis, an abundance of research shows that sepsis incidence and mortality maps to indicators of colonial practices including residential segregation, economic and marginalization sepsis, and denial of care. Here we argue that sepsis risk is an immunological embodiment of racism in colonial states, that the factors contributing to sepsis disparities are insidious and systemic. We show that regardless of causative pathogen, or host ancestry, racialized people get and die of sepsis most frequently in a pattern repeatedly reiterated worldwide. Lastly, we argue that while alleviation of sepsis disparities requires radical, multiscale intervention, biological anthropologists have a responsibility in this crisis. While some of us can harness our expertise to take on the ground action in sepsis prevention, all of us can leverage our positions as the first point of contact for in depth human biology instruction on most college campuses. As a leading cause of death worldwide, and a syndrome that exhibits the interplay between human physiology, race and environment, sepsis is at the nexus of major themes in biological anthropology and is a natural fit for the field's curriculum. In adopting a discussion of race and sepsis in our courses, we not only develop new research areas but increase public awareness of both sepsis and the factors contributing to uneven sepsis burden.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)230-255
Number of pages26
JournalAmerican Journal of Biological Anthropology
Issue numberS74
StatePublished - Aug 2022


  • COVID-19
  • sepsis
  • segregation
  • racial embodiment
  • human variation
  • denial of care

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Anatomy


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