Mechanical ventilation of patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy continues to be a subject of study. The purpose was to estimate prevalence, incidence, mortality and use of mechanical ventilation in the total Duchenne muscular dystrophy population in Denmark between 1977 and 2001 and further, to reconstruct the introduction of mechanical ventilation to assess the role of the patient organization. Study objects were collected from five sources and verifiable cases identified. Negotiations between health authorities and the patient organization constituted main empirical data for the reconstruction. While overall incidence remained stable at 2.0 per 10(5), prevalence rose from 3.1 to 5.5 per 10(5), mortality fell from 4.7 to 2.6 per 100 years at risk and prevalence of Duchenne muscular dystrophy ventilator users rose from 0.9 to 43.4 per 100. We conclude that survival of Duchenne muscular dystrophy patients has increased and ventilator use is probably a main reason. The patient organization exercised a key role but acted upon preconditions created by other players.