Thunderstorm Asthma Exposed Australia’s Inadequate Emergency Services

A sixth person person has died as a result of a severe asthma attack induced by a perfect storm of circumstances in Melbourne, Australia on Monday, November 21, 2016. Another five people remain in intensive care from the aftermath of their asthma attacks, with three of those five deemed to be critically ill.

Several triggers of asthma – from a high pollen count to a thunderstorm that brought strong winds and dropping temperatures – collided, creating a situation where at least 8,500 people with asthma or hay fever experienced breathing difficulties.

The uptick in the asthma and hay fever triggers found many people with breathing problems calling for ambulance assistance or showing up in hospital emergency departments in droves. Response times were necessarily longer than usual for emergency responders due to the sudden demand on the system; likewise in hospital emergency departments where medical staff provided Ventolin rescue inhalers to those people yet waiting to be seen.

As for the storm itself, meteorologist Mick Logan said there was nothing unusual about it from a weather perspective. The dry, warm weather in the area on Sunday gave way to the storm on Monday in Victoria, Australia, where the change of seasons from spring to summer is underway with its seasonally high pollen counts. The rain then causes the pollen granules to swell and burst, increasing their allergenic potential, something Dr. Jonathan Burdon, chair of the National Asthma Council, explains is the recognized basis for thunderstorm asthma.

While Health Minister Jill Hennessy repeated her assurances of an extensive probe by the Inspector General for Emergency Management of the issues demonstrated during the response to the life-threatening asthma attacks, Opposition health spokeswoman Mary Wooldridge retaliated against the planned April 2017 release of that probe, demanding immediate answers.

Wooldridge cited the upcoming bushfire season, producing another set of potential asthma triggers, as one of the factors requiring immediate answers so that solutions could be implemented sooner than later.

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