Brussels (AFP)

Faced with the influx of patients with coronavirus, requiring respiratory assistance, the medical staff in Brussels are now transforming diving masks to relieve the lungs of the sick.

The idea was born in Italy, the country most bereaved by the pandemic, with more than 10,000 deaths. Hospitals in other countries have followed the Italian example, each going with their little adaptation, as at the Erasme hospital, located in the outskirts of Brussels, the Belgian capital.

It is attached to the Free University of the City (ULB) and through this to the company Endo Tools Therapeutics, which develops medical devices.

These masks are used for "patients who have severe respiratory problems. The goal is to avoid having to intubate the patient's trachea and put him on the respirator", which is the ultimate deterioration of the disease, explains Frédéric Bonnier, physiotherapist in intensive care at Erasme hospital, also a lecturer at the university.

It was he who was behind the design of a tailor-made valve that fits on top of the masks covering the entire face. The valve takes the place of the tuba and makes the link between the mask and the machines which supply the patient with pressurized air.

Thanks to this system, we avoid the collapse of the pulmonary alveoli, these natural cavities located in the lungs and which allow the supply of oxygen in our body and the expiration of carbon dioxide. The pneumonia caused by COVID-19 inflames the pulmonary membrane and fills these alveoli with fluid.

The most serious cases require intubation of patients lacking oxygen and placement on a ventilator in intensive care.

Diving masks could be a temporary solution for patients requiring intensive care but for whom a bed and a respirator are not available.

They are connected to several filters and nozzles as well as a tube and a machine supplying pressurized air, helping patients to breathe better.

- Careful decathlon -

Their advantage and allow to ventilate the patient for longer periods thanks to its comfort.

From Monday, production will start, the masks will be available and as soon as a patient needs them, "we can offer him the benefit," explains Bonnier.

These masks, made in Italy, are of the same brand as those used by Italian doctors and offered by the French sports store Decathlon.

Mr. Bonnier explains that they are much more comfortable than those in the hospital. However, they have not been tested according to medical standards and are therefore for single use only: they cannot be sterilized between patients.

The Italian design of the 3D printed valve also had to be reworked.

"We, it seemed quite complicated to manufacture, quite heavy, not very convenient, and therefore we had the idea to push the thinking a little further and develop our own connection ourselves," explains M. Bonnier.

Mr. Bonnier also stresses that even if the tests prove conclusive, it is not certain that sports stores like Decathlon can meet all the needs in Belgium.

Informed of the use made of these diving accessories, Decathlon expressed three days ago its "interest" but also its prudence, on its Twitter account.

"If we see projects coming to fruition and hospitals confirm that certain tests are working, then we will keep you informed," he said.

© 2020 AFP