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The UK needs more ventilators ahead of the predicted peak in cases of coronavirus in the UK.
Currently, the NHS has access to around 9,000 to 10,000 ventilators, and there are a further 2,000 spare critical care beds that have ventilators attached to them, which brings the total to 12,000. However it’s thought 30,000 will be needed.
To deal with the shortage, one university has pledged to 3D-print ventilator parts and a Ventilator Challenge UK consortium has been set up with the goal of manufacturing 10,000 more ventilators.
So why are they so important in the coronavirus crisis?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says around one in every five people who catch Covid-19 will need hospital care.
Ventilators are needed for a small proportion of patients who become critically unwell, to the point where they struggle to breathe on their own. Doctors look for signs of respiratory failure – a standard breathing rate is 15 breaths per minute, but if the rate gets a lot higher, a ventilator may be needed.
A patient will be given a general anaesthetic and be hooked up to the ventilator, which then either assists, or takes over, the breathing. “In its simplest form, the ventilator fills the patient’s lungs with air containing high amounts of oxygen,” a spokesperson for the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine explains. “This helps oxygen go to the organs throughout the body, including the brain.”
In time, the hope is that there comes a point where the patients are able to breathe for themselves. “The ventilators have numerous modes that offer varying levels of support allowing them to be both comfortable and conscious before we remove their breathing tube,” says the spokesperson.
“Ventilators help oxygen go to the organs throughout the body, including the brain.”
In more severe Covid-19 cases, however, patients may enter acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a respiratory failure that causes widespread inflammation in the lungs. The oxygen levels in their blood might drop too low, or their carbon dioxide levels might rise too high. If either of these happen, it can damage vital organs, like the heart and brain.
“If patients develop ARDS they will be in an intensive care unit for weeks and they’ll die without ventilators,” Professor Sarath Ranganathan, a board member of Lung Foundation Australia, told The Guardian.
When patients’ conditions worsen, specialists are needed to fine tune the process using different settings that ventilators can offer.
“These options are not available on the more simplistic designs, for instance those used by veterinary practices,” says the faculty’s spokesperson, acknowledging that some veterinary surgeries have donated theirs to help.