Thunderstorm asthma should have been taken more seriously: expert

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An environmental allergist who was among the first to discover and name the ‘thunderstorm asthma’ phenomenon has warned of the effort needed to avoid another tragedy

Almost six months on from the devastating thunderstorm asthma event that resulted in the deaths of nine Melbourne people, Associate Professor Cenk Suphioglu, from Deakin’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences, said the phenomenon should have been taken more seriously.

“The risk is there every grass pollen season, as long as the two key triggers of thunderstorm asthma are there,” A/Prof Suphioglu said.

“That’s high grass pollen counts, due to a wet winter and spring promoting grass growth and subsequent pollen release.

“And then you have severe thunderstorms that provide the vehicle for pollen carriage, pollen bursting and then effective exposure of individuals to the generated micronic allergenic particles at the ground level.”

A/Prof Suphioglu set up Deakin AIRwatch in 2012, following his ground-breaking research into the first recognised thunderstorm asthma epidemic in Melbourne in 1987, which was published in the Lancet and Medical Journal of Australia in 1992.

The facility has pollen and spore counting stations at Deakin campuses in Geelong and Burwood and provides a free online warning service, advising of the allergen risk each day.

A/Prof Suphioglu said that while the science had been in place a long time, the severity and scale of last November’s event had not been anticipated by anyone.

He said the only way forward was to ensure the event, and most importantly the science behind it, was taken seriously.

“Further pollen monitoring and research must be adequately funded so that atmospheric allergen intelligence can be further improved and real-time atmospheric allergen data can be obtained to improve the thunderstorm asthma predictions by making them more robust,” he said.

“We need to ensure there is adequate public awareness and education campaigns every year prior to hay fever season. Due to the sporadic nature of thunderstorm asthma events, people can become complacent or they just forget.”

A/Prof Suphioglu welcomed the recent report from the Inspector General for Emergency Management into the 2017 thunderstorm asthma event, and the government’s subsequent commitment of $15.56 million to implement all of the report’s 16 recommendations.

“It’s fantastic that the government, and the health minister, is taking this thunderstorm asthma event very seriously,” he said.

“The funding they’ve announced will help us to better understand, predict and respond to such events in the future.”

A/Prof Suphioglu said the government had also committed to funding the monitoring and interpretation of pollen data, which is directly relevant to the work carried out at Deakin AIRwatch.

“Ensuring that the sufferers are never caught by surprise in the future again is critical,” he said.

“And having a prediction and warning system that is run centrally by a government agency will be central to that.”

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1 Comment

  1. Bruce ANNABEL

    As a person who has suffered from asthma to varying degrees all my life one never knows when an allergy ‘event’ will spring up out of nowhere and hit you hard. Therefore, having a reliever within immediate reach is always vital, keeping an eye on the daily pollen count/level via my weather APP and being compliant with the preventer are all critical risk mitigation strategies. In my experience preventative measures including knowing one’s allergies, avoiding the triggers and maintaining good health including staying in good physical shape via a healthy diet and exercise are, in my experience, vital. But even then a trigger can occasionally hit you from left field. So the awareness programme and other measures discussed are important. But, pharmacy have a role too through pharmacists better educating patients in asthma management and raising awareness of the allergy risks. It’s an important value add taking very little time and, again in my experience, raise the typical ‘service’ level from the current conversation with (mostly) assistants of ‘would you like the cheaper alternative and have you had this before’.

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