New alert system to help prepare for thunderstorm asthma

Amanda Lyons

22/11/2017 11:56:14 AM

A year on from the major thunderstorm asthma event that occurred in 2016, practitioners and patients can now be better equipped for similar events.

The new alert system is designed to help GPs and patients be more prepared for the threat of thunderstorm asthma.
The new alert system is designed to help GPs and patients be more prepared for the threat of thunderstorm asthma.

The Victorian Government has launched an online thunderstorm asthma alert system designed to help GPs and their patients be better prepared for a similar occurrence.
‘For general practice, the messages are antihistamines for people at risk, having our patients pay attention to the hard and fast storm days if they’ve got allergy, and keeping an eye on the warnings,’ Dr Cameron Loy, Chair of RACGP Victoria, told newsGP. ‘Also, make sure anyone with asthma has got it well managed.’
The alert system can also help practices themselves with preparation.
‘Practices can bring in extra staff or have staff on-call to handle the extra surge of patients,’ Dr Tim Senior, a GP with a special interest in environmental impacts in general practice, told newsGP.
November 21 2016 brought strong, hot northerly winds and the promise of a storm to Melbourne. When the storm hit at 6.00 pm, a rarely seen combination of weather conditions resulted in a deadly event – thunderstorm asthma – that touched many in healthcare.
‘[Thunderstorm asthma] has been observed before but this was the biggest recorded event and, certainly, GPs became very aware of it as it was happening,’ Dr Senior said. ‘GPs were managing a lot of the asthma spread right across the city and that actually kept the worst pressure off the emergency departments.
‘There were some very appreciative comments from ED physicians regarding how well GPs managed what was happening.’
According to Dr Loy, Victoria occupies an ‘asthma band’, partly due to widespread growth of rye grass, a commonly allergenic pollen. Add the right meteorological ingredients – thunderstorms, strong northerly winds, humidity – and it creates the recipe for thunderstorm asthma.
‘We had a set of climactic conditions that were perfect for the pollen to be raised up in front of these wind gusts and break apart,’ Dr Loy said. ‘It’s that breaking apart of the pollen that is so incredibly allergenic.’
These smaller pollen fragments can trigger asthma symptoms among a wide range of people, not just people with asthma. However, most of those who experience such symptoms have something very particular in common.
‘Almost 95% of the people who presented to hospital with thunderstorm asthma [last year] had a history of allergy,’ Dr Loy said.
The knowledge of which people are most at risk, combined with the new thunderstorm asthma alert system, should help GPs and their patients to be better prepared should this extreme weather event happen again – something Dr Senior feels may be increasingly likely.
‘I think [the thunderstorm asthma event] is a wake-up call on the effects of climate change,’ he said. ‘For all GPs, the health effects of changing climate aren’t so much related to the global average temperature, but to more frequent severe and catastrophic weather events experienced locally.’

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