Luckily for Australia, our veterinarians have more mechanical ventilators per head of the population than any other country. This is due to the fact our pets and wildlife face unique diseases that cause respiratory paralysis, such as tick toxicity and various species of snake envenomation - diseases not found anywhere else on Earth.
Recently, a survey was sent to veterinary hospitals across Australia to obtain an inventory of their life support machines (mechanical ventilators). However, since news broke that mechanical ventilators used in veterinary hospitals could be called upon to be used in human hospitals for the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, there has been panic. There has been alarm from the public regarding these ventilator's safety and efficacy for their use on humans. We've gathered the top three myths regarding these ventilators circulating online at the moment and debunked them.
Debunking pet ventilator myths
Mechanical ventilators in veterinary clinics and hospitals can only be used for animals
Since the collation of the Australian Veterinary Ventilator Inventory, it has been found that 95% of the mechanical ventilators located in Australia vet clinics and hospitals are ex-hospital human ventilators1. Focusing on ventilator models found in specialist/referral vet hospitals, this proportion approaches 99%. This is not surprising as human hospitals are required to replace their ventilators regularly to ensure they are up to date with the latest technology. This means ventilators in excellent working order, and have been regularly serviced by hospitals are often sold to vet hospitals. Therefore, when these mechanical ventilators are returned to the human hospital's intensive care units (ICU) to help with the COVID-19 pandemic, they will not require any adaptation to service human patients.
Veterinary specific ventilators cannot be used on humans
Veterinary specific ventilators make up the remaining 5% of the mechanical ventilators in vet hospitals. There are various models of veterinary specific ventilators currently used in vet clinics. Some of these ventilators are designed specifically for ventilation of smaller patients, like birds, cats and small breed dogs. The others are made to ventilate large animals up to 1,000kg. According to human anaesthetists, it is actually possible to repurpose some of these ventilators to adapt them for human use. The smaller ventilators can be used to ventilate neonates or paediatric patients, while the large animal ventilators can be adapted to ventilate multiple adult patients at once. Saying that, due to the technological difficulties and expertise required to repurpose these machines, these veterinary ventilators will only be considered for use in the ICUs as a last resort.
I could catch animal diseases from mechanical ventilators from vet hospitals
This is understandably a very genuine concern considering COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease (spread from animals to humans). Cleaning and infection control protocols in veterinary hospitals are in line with the stringent cleaning and sterilisation protocols required in human hospitals to prevent cross infection. Most of the tubing and parts that are in direct contact with animal patients are disposable. This means these parts can only be used once and have to be disposed of to avoid potentially passing on infection to the next patient that uses the same equipment. These disposable parts are designed specifically to reduce the risk of cross infection between patients. Secondly, prior to any of the veterinary ventilators being used in the ICUs, biomedical engineers are required to thoroughly examine, service and sterilise the machines before they are allowed to be used on human patients.
Australia has taken extreme measures to ensure the country's intensive care unite surge capacity is able to take on predicted COVID-19 caseloads, even in a worst-case scenario, by considering all options available to them. By having this veterinary ventilator list available ahead of the increase in ICU demand, Australia is in a much better position than countries that didn't have time to prepare. This list can be access by all state health departments and the Australian and New Zealand Intensive Care Society should the need arise. Best case scenario will be we are over-prepared and this list remains as a backup resource. However, in the event these ventilators need to be called upon, Australia will be ready. In this unprecedented pandemic, every mechanical ventilator matters. With this in mind, Australia can be reassured ventilators acquired from veterinary hospitals for use in the COVID-19 pandemic response are simply returning to their original source, human hospitals, with one goal in mind - to save human lives.
Video Credit: Dr Gerardo Poli - Animal Emergency Service Veterinarian; Nick Harris Productions
Written by Dr Philomena Kwong - Animal Emergency Service Veterinarian
1 Litton, E., Bucci, T., Chavan, S., Ho, Y.Y., Holley, A., Howard, G., Huckson, S., Kwong, P., Millar, J., Nguyen, H., Secombe, P., Ziegenfuss, M., and Pilcher, D. (2020) Surge capacity of Australian intensive care units associated with COVID-19 admissions. The Medical Journal of Australia (pre-print). (accessed on April 8, 2020)