Keeping one step ahead of pollen triggers for thunderstorm asthma

The recent Melbourne thunderstorm asthma event has led some people to question what made this hay fever season so bad and how this tragic event occurred.

Thunderstorm asthma, a sudden surge in cases of acute respiratory illness coinciding with local thunderstorms, ranges from small events that affect handfuls of people to large-scale epidemics that impact a whole city and severely strain the capacity of emergency services.

Thunderstorm asthma occurs when a complex interaction of meteorological and biological factors affects a group of susceptible individuals.

We don’t yet know the clinical circumstances and allergic sensitivities of those who sought medical care on the night of the recent episode. But, based on similar events in Australia, most will likely have been allergic to grass pollen, in particular rye grass pollen.

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Rare thunderstorm asthma kills 4 in Australia

MELBOURNE, Australia — Three patients remained critically ill on Thursday, three days after a rare condition known as thunderstorm asthma killed four people and sent hundreds to hospitals in Australia’s second-largest city, an official said.

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Melbourne University botanist Ed Newbigin, who runs Melbourne’s main pollen-counting station, said forecasting such events should be possible.

“Thunderstorms and high pollen levels in the air occur reasonably frequently this time of year, but not all those events result in episodes of thunderstorm asthma,” Newbigin said.

“We can probably figure out what are the requirements for producing thunderstorm asthma and come up with, if not a perfect forecast system, at least a pretty good one,” he said.

The world’s first recorded thunderstorm asthma event occurred in Melbourne in 1987. Similar events have happened in the United States, Canada, Britain and Italy. The last major event in Melbourne was in November 2010.

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Thunderstorm asthma deaths under spotlight

Source: SBS

A review into the emergency service response to Melbourne's asthma thunderstorm will examine at least four deaths linked to the rare phenomenon.The man who runs Melbourne's main pollen counting station thinks it's possible to develop an asthma thunderstorm forecast given useful data exists from previous events.

"We get those conditions of high grass pollen and thunderstorms quite regularly in Melbourne at this time of year but it's not every time that we get thunderstorm asthma," pollen expert Ed Newbigin from Melbourne University told AAP.

"So there is another factor involved that we don't know (yet)."

Associate Professor Newbigin, who's attending Thursday's meeting, is convinced the state's various monitoring bodies can identify the missing ingredient.

But how reliable a forecasting model would be, and whether it could predict when an event would be as extreme as on Monday, is unknown.

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Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part maybe reproduced by any process without prior written permission from
the University of Melbourne, Australia. Requests and inquiries concerning reproduction and rights should be addressed to Associate Professor Ed Newbigin
School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne. Phone: +61 3 8344 4871.