The 'Thunderstorm Asthma' Phenomenon affecting Melbournians

24 November 2016

A severe thunderstorm that occurred on Monday afternoon, sweeping through Melbourne, is said to have triggered a number of asthma attacks. CANSTAR investigates. 

According to Asthma Australia, one in 10 people suffer from Asthma – a long-term lung condition in which the patient finds it difficult to breathe. Many of the people who have now experienced the rare phenomenon known as ‘thunderstorm asthma’, have usually been associated with the diagnosis of a common condition known as hay fever, in which they are allergic to pollen, or other substances in the air.

As we approach the beginning of storm season, there have been a number of reported asthma attacks sparked by large storms that have caused bizarre and  significant breathing problems; even for people who aren’t usually asthma or hay fever sufferers.

What is ‘thunderstorm asthma’?

It is said that this condition is caused by a change in the size of the pollen particles in the air. According to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA), it is thought that these outbreaks occur during thunderstorms due to pollen grains (usually rye grass); which rapidly absorb water and rupture, leading to the release of hundreds of small particles in the air.

“These particles can penetrate deep into people’s lungs and trigger the asthma attacks that have been occurring throughout Melbourne,” they said.

So what happened in Melbourne?

A severe thunderstorm spread through Melbourne on Monday afternoon after the state’s hottest recorded day since March. According to Mick Stephenson, Executive Director of Ambulance Victoria, there were over 2,000 calls to triple-0 for ambulances between 6:00pm and 11:00pm — nearly seven times more than usual. About a fifth of those calls were for cases of asthma, and nearly three-quarters of those calls were for people with breathing difficulties, he told the BBC.

“A lot of people who called last night had never had asthma before,” Stephenson was quoted as saying. “In the 15 minutes from 7:00pm when we would expect about 30 triple-0 calls for ambulance there were 200 calls — that’s a call every 4.5 seconds.” There have been 4 deaths from asthma recorded during the storm, and 3 others are in a critical condition.

St Vincent’s Hospital, in Fitzroy, an inner-Melbourne suburb, was overflowing with emergency patients to the point where they allegedly ran out of Ventolin puffers.

Hospital spokeswomen, Kathy Bowlen said, “The emergency physicians say not only have they never seen anything like this before, they’ve never seen so many people arrive at one time all suffering the exact same condition.”

The Hon Jill Hennessy, Minister for Health and Ambulance Services, has since issued a state-wide review of the emergency response to the thunderstorm asthma event that occurred. The review will be a thorough and extensive examination of how Victoria’s emergency services and health system responded to, and managed, this emergency, and will identify and thoroughly examine the lessons that need to be learnt, to ensure the right resources and measures to better prepare for and respond to similar events in the future.

“This was a health emergency of an unprecedented scale, and we have an obligation to ensure that we learn every lesson there is to learn from this event,” Jill Hennessy said, “This review will make sure that should this, or an event of a similar scale, ever occur again we have the right systems, measures and resources in place to provide the very best response.”


Storm season is looming

As we begin to enter storm season, it’s never too late to start organising your “storm safe” plan. While thunderstorm asthma may be considered a rare phenomenon, it is still a condition that has the possibility of affecting hundreds of people. Whether you have asthma or are maybe even known to suffer from hay fever every now and then, it is advised for you to carry an asthma puffer in your emergency storm kit just in case the condition affects you. Stay safe and prepared this storm season, and enjoy these hot, summer days, stress free.

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