Last-ditch life support system is saving lives of Covid patients

Viral Infection, Microbiology And Virology Concept. Virus Background with Copy Space.
Viral Infection, Microbiology And Virology Concept. Virus Background with Copy Space.
  • There is another alternative when ventilators and other types of care can't support Covid-19 patients any more
  • In such cases, an ECMO machine takes over the function of the lungs and heart
  • In a study, after being placed on ECMO, the death rate among patients was lower than 40%

A life support technique called ECMO has saved the lives of many critically ill Covid-19 patients, a new study shows.

The ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machine takes over the function of the lungs and heart. Blood is pumped from the body into equipment that adds oxygen to the blood before it's returned to the body.

This technique has saved lives in previous epidemics of lung-damaging viruses, but small studies published early in the coronavirus pandemic questioned its effectiveness.

This international study included 1 035 Covid-19 patients at high risk of death because ventilators and other types of care couldn't support their lungs.

When ventilators fail

After being placed on ECMO, the death rate among these patients was less than 40%, according to the study authors.

"These results from hospitals experienced in providing ECMO are similar to past reports of ECMO-supported patients, with other forms of acute respiratory distress syndrome or viral pneumonia," said co-author Dr Ryan Barbaro, of the University of Michigan.

"The results support recommendations to consider ECMO in Covid-19 if the ventilator is failing. We hope these findings help hospitals make decisions about this resource-intensive option," Barbaro said in a university news release.

Most centres in this study did not need to use ECMO for Covid-19 very often, said study co-author Graeme MacLaren, of the National University Health System in Singapore.

Experienced ECMO teams

"By bringing data from over 200 international centres together into the same study, [it] has deepened our knowledge about the use of ECMO for Covid-19 in a way that would be impossible for individual centres to learn on their own," MacLaren said in the release.

While the study reveals that ECMO can save the lives of Covid-19 patients who show signs of requiring advanced life support, it should be provided at hospitals with experienced ECMO teams, the researchers said. Hospitals shouldn't try to add ECMO capability in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, they added.

The results were published on 25 September in The Lancet medical journal.

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