Patients who are put on a ventilator while in the intensive care unit (ICU) are very likely to develop life-threatening pneumonia. It's a risk that ICU personnel know exists, but are not prepared to talk about to patients and their families.
The problem is in the ventilator itself; its tubes carry bacteria, which easily make their way into the patient's lungs.
Doctors have tried different strategies for reducing the risk, but usually have to tackle the pneumonia with antibiotics once it has developed. At best, pneumonia means a longer hospital stay; at worst, the patient dies.
Now scientists are working on a new tube that is coated with silver ions, and which is supposed to eliminate - or dramatically reduce, at least - the bacterial infections. It's been tested on 2,003 patients who were likely to need to be on a ventilator for 24 hours or longer. Of these, just 3 per cent of those who used the coated tube went on to develop pneumonia, compared with 7.5 per cent who were given the standard tubes. It also took far longer for a patient using a coated tube to develop pneumonia.
(Source: Journal of the American Medical Association, 2008; 300: 805-13).