Today is a significant day as we recognise the third anniversary of the Thunderstorm Asthma (TSA) Epidemic, which struck Victoria on Monday 21 November 2016.
Asthma Australia’s CEO Michele Goldman says the incident was tragic and one of the biggest of its type in history.
“Our thoughts are with the families of the 10 people who tragically lost their lives, and to the thousands of people who suffered due to their asthma during this unprecedented weather event.
“As we pay tribute to the people who passed away, today is a timely reminder that we need to continue to educate people on how to better manage their hay fever and asthma should another similar weather event occur,” Ms Goldman said.
Thunderstorm Asthma is the combination of high grass pollen levels and a dramatic change in weather condition caused by a certain type of thunderstorm. It’s important for people to be vigilant with their asthma management, know how to spot the symptoms and know what to do in an asthma emergency.”
Following the 2016 crisis, Asthma Australia conducted to better understand the experiences of people with asthma, receiving over 3,000 responses. The Respiratory Division of the George Institute Australia was engaged to analyse the results. Several key findings were identified, including the worrying results that: the people who reported an asthma attack were younger on average, more likely to have recent symptoms and treatment of hay fever, and less likely to have recent symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of asthma.
This was the case for Jonathan Green, 32 of Wantirna who said he’s always had allergies but until the night of the tragic Thunderstorm Asthma Epidemic, he didn’t have asthma.
“I’ve had hay fever and allergies for much of my life but I didn’t consider that I had asthma before that event, which I remember very clearly. It was a warm afternoon but there was a change coming. It was windy with leaves swirling around in the air.
“Later that evening when my wife and I went to bed, I woke a number of times during the night very short of breath. I would wake up gasping for air and feeling like I couldn’t get enough into my lungs. Eventually it would settle again and I would drift off to sleep before it would repeat again,” Mr Green said.
Jonathan’s wife Laura Green also recalls the events that unfolded that night.
“I remember waking up to my husband being very distressed in his sleep and moaning as he seemed to be in a lot of discomfort. He sat up and was trying to catch his breath. I kept asking “Do you need to go to hospital? Should I call an ambulance?” He said he was fine but he kept on struggling all through the night. I sat up to watch over him and make sure he was ok. I had my hand on his tummy and his breath was very short all night. I was shocked when we woke up and read that this had been the experience for so many others and that the night had ended tragically for some,” Mrs Green explained.
“It’s made me change the way I think about his asthma. I’m very stressed and mindful of it. I tell him to have a puffer with him all the time. Whenever there is that same sort of feeling in the air, an eerie feeling of the weather changing, I am particularly vigilant and make sure he has a puffer with him. It makes me anxious,” she continued.
While for Mr Green, he says the TSA event has definitely made him more aware of how dangerous asthma can be.
Three years on, the survey findings are as relevant today. An Asthma Australia Facebook poll identified that of 240 participants, 64% of people think that any storm can lead to Thunderstorm Asthma.
“This isn’t the case as TSA is the combination of high grass pollen levels and high winds controlled by a specific thunderstorm condition,” Ms Goldman explained.
“We also asked people if they knew what PM2.5 is and of the 328 participants, 84% did not. PM2.5 refers to atmospheric particulate matter (PM) that have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers. During a TSA event, the pollen burst open and release tiny particles that are concentrated in the wind gusts that come just before a thunderstorm. These particles are small enough to be breathed deep into the lungs and can rapidly trigger asthma symptoms, making it difficult to breathe,” she added.
We would like to remember the people who passed away from the epidemic event, including Omar-Jamil Moujalled, Hope Marsh (also known as Hope Carnevali), Apollo Papadopoulos, Clarence Leo, Ling-Ling Ang, Thao La, Hoi-Sam Lau, Priyantha Peiris, Min Guo, LeHue Huynh.
TSA is a term used to describe an observed increase in acute bronchospasm cases following the occurrence of thunderstorms in the local vicinity, and while TSA is a little studied phenomenon, an increasing body of evidence shows the occurrence of severe asthma epidemics associated with thunderstorms in the pollen season. At risk groups are people with asthma but also people who are sensitised who may never have had a previous clinical asthma episode but may suffer allergic rhinitis due to pollen allergy.
You can learn more about TSA via the Asthma Australia website here.