Are ventilators lifeline for Covid patients or deathtraps?

Are ventilators lifeline for Covid patients or deathtraps?

Sheikh Ahmad Umar

With every passing day, new and unusual facts about the novel coronavirus are coming to light. Much of the knowledge unearthed during the early days of this pandemic was subsequently proven wrong or found to be substantially unreliable. A research paper was making rounds on social media whose authors claimed that smokers were at more risk of developing severe symptoms on contracting this viral disease. But more recent scientific evidence has shown that smokers actually have shown the least mortality rate among the infected ones.
Likewise, ventilators are considered as lifeline for those developing severe pneumonia and pneumonia like symptoms. But statistics released world over speak a different language and it is being thought now by some doctors that ventilators may actually act as deathtraps for patients who develop severe symptoms. Patients being rushed into hospitals and requiring specialized treatment are immediately knocked out by sedatives delivered through a throat tube as a ventilator mechanically pumps their lungs to send oxygen into their bodies. This has been a standard treatment ever since it was first used for Covid-19 patients in China, then almost everywhere. But a New York-based doctor, Cameron Kyle-Sidell, warns in a frank YouTube video that it is wrong to use ventilators in the way they are being used for Covid patients. Stating emphatically and fearing that this misguided treatment will cause a tremendous amount of harm in a very short time, owing to the fact that Covid-19 is not actually pneumonia but is being treated like pneumonia. In particular, experts are now thinking of a new approach to saturate the blood of Covid patients with oxygen delivered through a mask, which could actually do the job without harming the lungs through continuous pressure created while using ventilators for the same purpose.
Healthcare experts were initially insisting to governments that ventilators were a crucial life-saver and it made every nation rush to buy them in bulk. But now different statistics are coming out that patients who have been put on ventilators are actually dying in greater numbers, their mortality rates much higher compared to those not put on ventilators. According to a report by the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre, in one British study alone, two-thirds of 98 Covid patients who were put on ventilators died. Another study in New York revealed that 80 percent of ventilated patients failed to recover. Similarly in a European hospital, where Covid patients were ventilated in this way, 60 percent of them died. Such reports clearly show that ventilators are not the ideal strategy for dispensing oxygen to Covid patients and that other medical approaches must be given a chance in their place.
Researchers in China’s Wuhan have also reported that of 37 critically ill patients put on mechanical ventilators, 30 of them died within a month. Similarly, in a U.S. study of patients at Seattle, only one of every seven patients older than 70 put on a ventilator survived, and of those under 70 years of age, just over a third made it through.
For pneumonia cases, the ventilator does the work because the patient’s muscles can no longer do the job as they are too tired and weakened. But the muscles of Covid-19 patients are fine; they are suffering from oxygen deficiency, not respiratory failure. The use of ventilators may actually injure their lungs. Medics now believe that invasive ventilation is not a solution for Covid-19 as the disease does not resemble pneumonia or a similar respiratory ailment.
Many patients suffering from Covid-19 have extraordinarily low oxygen levels when they arrive at hospital. Ventilators take over the breathing process of the patients, who are heavily sedated so they cannot fight the sensation of not being able to breathe on their own. The machines pump the lungs artificially to send oxygen to the vital organs. Patients are often left on ventilators for weeks, unlike pneumonia patients who are kept on ventilator for a couple of days only. This means that the pressure at which ventilator pushes oxygen into the lungs has to be constantly turned up, which leads to lung damage. Older patients, who even if they survive, are at risk of permanent brain damage from being heavily sedated for such a long period. This helps explain why the death figures for ventilated Covid cases are so alarmingly high.
There is growing concern over use of ventilators for Covid patients and contrary to the impression that if extremely ill Covid-19 patients are treated with ventilators they will live, and not they will die, now more and more doctors believe that Covid-19 patients should get breathing masks which deliver oxygen in a non-invasive way. A simple machine called CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure), which is often used by people in their own homes to conquer sleep apnoea (snoring and interrupted breathing), can be an alternative strategy to ventilators.
Much more will change in the treatment of Covid-19 patients as facts are established with intense research going on the world over. There is only one strategy right now to rely upon and that is “Social Distancing”. This has to be adopted indefinitely till a suitable treatment regimen is in place after more facts are unearthed in the times to come.

The writer works as Senior Research Fellow at CSIR-Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine Jammu.

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