Health professionals were not very aware of thunderstorm asthma when the November 2016 event took place, one expert says

An inquest has begun into the thunderstorm asthma event, which took the lives of 10 people and affected thousands of others on November 21, 2016.

Seven men and three women died. It was the largest ever recorded epidemic thunderstorm asthma event in the world.

ABC news reporter Karen Percy wrote for the broadcaster that Professor Jo Douglass, an allergy specialist from the University of Melbourne, said that if the severity of the symptoms of those who died had been noticed earlier, outcomes may have been different.

She said that on average around 15 minutes elapsed between the victims beginning to experience severe symptoms, such as shortness of breath and inability to speak, and entering cardiac arrest.

Prof Douglass was asked what knowledge health professionals in general, including doctors and pharmacists, had about thunderstorm asthma beforehand.

“I don’t think they were very aware,” she said. “I don’t think they really thought about it.”

Prof Douglass said that all those who died as a result of the death had an asthma diagnosis. Most suffered from hayfever.

Only three of the victims had an asthma action plan, she said.

A number of the victims had spent some time out of doors before they died, including 20-year-old Hope Marsh, who had felt “wheezy” and gone out to get some “fresh air,” the Guardian reports.

Prof Douglass urged Australians with asthma to carry a reliever puffer and give themselves a high dose in such an emergency.

The victims included Omar-Jamil Moujalled, 18; Hope Marsh (also known as Hope Carnevali), 20; Min Guo, 29; Apollo Papadopoulos, 35; Clarence Leo, 37; LeHue Huynh, 46; Ling-Ling Ang, 47; Thao La, 48; Hoi-Sam Lau, 49; and Priyantha Peiris, 57.

 

Pharmacy and thunderstorm asthma

During the event, a number of pharmacists and their staff stepped up to help people affected by the thunderstorm – including people who had never had an asthma attack before.

Peter O’Connor, owner of the Carnovale Pharmacy (one of several 24-hour Supercare pharmacies in Victoria) and Yarraville Square Pharmacy, told the AJP the next day that he had run out of Ventolin in a night he described as “frantic”.

The thunderstorm happened at about a quarter to seven, and at about 10 past seven, the first person came in presenting with asthma.

“It snowballed from there. Within about 40 minutes it was apparent that we were in all sorts of trouble when it came to Ventolin. I ordered 200 for the next day, but that wasn’t going to help us last night.

“I have never seen anything remotely like it, in 25 years of working in pharmacy.”

Pharmacy assistant Tania Doric told her employer, pharmacist Angelo Pricolo, that the night had been “the most challenging, confronting and scariest shift I have ever worked!”

“People were being turned away from hospital and being sent to us. We sold easily 200 Ventolins. Customers were dropping in the shop… it was absolute mayhem.”

Earlier this year Dr Jenny Gowan, pharmacist and member of the National Asthma Council Australia Guidelines Committee, said that at least the thunderstorm asthma event appeared to have made people with asthma or hayfever more likely to take on board the recommendations of their health care providers.

“People with asthma are far more approachable and likely to take the approach of making sure they’re well covered in terms of emergency supply,” Dr Gowan told the AJP. “It’s a lot easier to talk with anyone who has allergy, hayfever or asthma and help them know what to do in an emergency.

“That was the basis of the problem: people did not know what to do. It’s enabled us to have a more positive impact on their care.

“I want to spread the message as far as possible so that people are aware of what to do,” she said. “That’s why there were 10 deaths: people didn’t know they had asthma or airway sensitivity, and they felt like they were being jumped on with bricks.”