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Thunderstorm asthma: what have we learnt?

Thunderstorm Asthma

A recap of the thunderstorm asthma event

The thunderstorm asthma epidemic in Melbourne in November 2016, was caused by high levels of grass pollen particles that shattered and were spread by the extreme weather conditions. These smaller allergen particles were then able to be inhaled into the airways and in those who were susceptible, caused irritation leading to swelling, narrowing and extra mucus production in the small airways in the lung and difficulty breathing.

Asthma Australia's thunderstorm asthma survey

We received over 3,000 responses from people reporting that they were affected by the thunderstorm asthma event. Through the survey we’ve learnt that more people are susceptible to experiencing an asthma “attack” than was previously thought, many didn’t have an asthma diagnosis and as a result weren’t aware they were even at risk of asthma.

The key learnings from our survey are summarised below:

Survey finding 1:

Those who reported experiencing an asthma “attack” were likely to have recent symptoms and treatment of hay fever and no diagnosis and treatment of asthma.

Survey finding 2:

Those who reported experiencing an asthma “attack” and an asthma diagnosis, were less likely to be taking their preventer medication daily and less likely to have a written asthma action plan. 

Survey finding 3:

Awareness of asthma first aid was low among people either with or without a previous asthma diagnosis. This resulted in:

  • Potential uncertainty and inability to recognise breathing difficulties as symptoms of asthma

  • Not knowing how to respond, where and how to get further information and ultimately when to request medical assistance

Here’s a snapshot of the wider survey results:

TA infographic

What does this mean for people who may be susceptible to an asthma attack?

During the thunderstorm asthma event many people had asthma symptoms that were unexpected and quickly became serious. Because a significant proportion of people did not have an asthma diagnosis, they did not know what was happening or what to do.

This shows that an increased awareness of asthma is needed in order to save lives. We need to make sure the whole community, not just those who have or care for someone with asthma, can identify asthma symptoms and act in an asthma emergency. It’s vital to be prepared, even if people have not previously had an asthma attack.

Refer your patients to our asthma emergency webpage to learn the important 4 steps in asthma first aid. 

What's next?

Asthma Australia recently attended the Epidemic Thunderstorm Asthma symposium held by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). This event bought together experts from across Australia to listen and discuss detailed information relating to the Thunderstorm Asthma incident. 

Watch this space for more information as we all work together towards improving systems and processes for the future and planning for the 2017 Victorian pollen season.

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