Thunderstorm In Australia Sparks Thousands Of Asthma Attacks and Kills Four People

A heavy thunderstorm sparked an unlikely series of events in Australia earlier this week, resulting in widespread reports of asthma attacks, overflowing hospitals, and the death of at least four people.

The thunderstorm took place on Monday November 21 over Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city. The heavy rainfall is believed to have soaked rye grass pollen, causing them to burst, spreading tiny specks of pollen across the city. The small pieces of pollen then made their way into the respiratory tracts of the local people and provoked asthma attacks, along with other breathing difficulties.

“When rye grass pollen becomes wet through humidity or water, it breaks up into a lot of small pieces and those small pieces can get past the nasal passage into the lungs. Normally rye grass would be trapped in the nasal passage,” Robin Ould, from the Asthma Foundation of Victoria in Australia told AFP.

“When it gets into the lungs, the allergens that are there cause an asthma attack… the small bronchial tubes become inflamed, they fill with mucus and the muscles around them become tight and people can’t exchange their air,” he explained.

As crazy as it seems, thunderstorm asthma is a phenomenon documented in a handful of scientific studies. Although it is rare, Melbourne has had at least three other instances of them in the past few decades due to the high amounts of rye grass found in the farmlands surrounding the city. The phenomenon has also been seen before in the UK, in bothLondon and Birminghamin 1994 and 1983, respectively.

The emergency services received 1,900 emergency phone calls within five hours on Monday evening, with some 8,500 patients heading to hospitals over the following two days. Four people died and, as of today, three patients remain in a critical condition, with nine more in intensive care. The majority of those affected had a history of asthma or hayfever.

This was a health emergency of an unprecedented scale It was like having 150 bombs going off right across a particular part of metropolitan Melbourne,” Victorian state Health Minister Jill Hennessy said.

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Thunderstorm asthma: 8 dead in Australia from freak illness

(CNN)A freak illness known as thunderstorm asthma has now killed at least eight people in Australia.

Thousands were hospitalized in Melbourne and other parts of Victoria last Monday with breathing problems due to a rare combination of weather and pollen.
    Eight days later, seven people are still receiving hospital treatment, including one who is in a critical condition, according to the Victoria Department of Health and Human Services.
    Thunderstorm asthma occurs when a storm hits during a period of unusually high pollen and high humidity, causing the grains to break up and disperse, entering people’s lungs and making it hard for them to breathe.

    In a survey by the University of Melbourne, 74% of respondents said they experienced an asthma attack during the storm last week.

    Health emergency

    Though grass pollen is the most common known cause of thunderstorm asthma, attacks can also be triggered by excessive levels of tree pollen and fungal spores in the atmosphere.
    “This will vary by geography,” said Aziz Sheikh, Professor of Primary Care Research and Development at the University of Edinburgh, adding that pollen from olive trees, for example, was reported in a previous thunderstorm asthma event in Italy in 2010.
    Levels of fungal spores in the atmosphere typically peak during harvest, which can also be drawn up and broken down during large thunderstorms due to the rise in atmospheric pressure, according to Sheikh.
    An official review is currently underway into how Victoria’s state emergency services and health system responded to the thunderstorm asthma emergency.
    An extra 60 ambulances had to be deployed as more than 1,900 calls flooded emergency lines in four hours, or one call every four to five seconds.


    What can be done?

    While thunderstorm asthma has occurred all over the world in different conditions, there are persistent factors, according to Reena Ghildyal, an expert in biomedical sciences at the University of Canberra.
    “There are many common threads in all reports of thunderstorm-related asthma — a high concentration of potentially allergenic material such as that in late spring in Melbourne (pollen grains or fungi), a thunderstorm that sweeps up the allergens, which burst when wet and release very small particles (such as starch granules or fungal spores),” she wrote last week.
    People with pre-existing asthma are particularly at risk of complications from thunderstorm asthma, and should therefore take necessary precautions.
    “Keep updated on local pollen counts and weather forecasts, especially in spring; keep your asthma medication up to date; enjoy the spectacle of the thunderstorm from inside your house; and call (emergency services) if your asthma worsens or you feel any breathing difficulty,” she said.

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    We Now Know What Causes Deadly “Thunderstorm Asthma” Outbreaks

    Every now and then, during a significant thunderstorm, those suffering from asthma can experience severe attacks and the consequences can sometimes be fatal. Known appropriately as thunderstorm asthma, one of the most extreme examples of this on record took place last October in Melbourne, Australia, where 8,500 people were admitted to hospital and six of them died.

    Although theories have cropped up as to why the two phenomena are linked for more than three decades now, a new study by a team led by Australias University of Georgia (UGA) has conclusively defined the triggering mechanisms.

    Writing in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology, they have found that the high winds, the electrical discharge, the high humidity, and tiny grass pollen particles all play starring roles as antagonists.

    Based primarily on the Australian event, they explain that it all starts with bioaerosols, particles released from various ecosystems that are mixtures of organic and inorganic components. Pollen, mold spores, and dust are frequently found within these floating blobs.

    The high humidity and rainfall that comes with particularly bad thunderstorms break open these levitating conglomerates, which scatters the pollen and dust into the air in millions of little explosions.

    The high electrical discharge that accompanies thunderstorms exacerbates this fragmentation and, combined with strong downdraft winds, ensures that it is blown into the faces of anyone miles down the road from the storm itself.

    While this study does not yet provide the capability of predicting thunderstorm asthma outbreaks, our methodology may provide a key piece to the puzzle for alerting public health officials about what storms may trigger an episode and which ones may not, co-author Marshall Shepherd, a professor of geography and atmospheric sciences at UGA, said in a statement.

    Either way, its now clear that the combination of the above characteristics represents the perfect storm of conditions that will trigger severe asthmatic symptoms in enormous groups of people. Some have described them as asthma epidemics.

    Incredibly, the Melbourne event was so potent that it essentially gave asthma to those that never had it. Of the thousands afflicted that day, up to 40 percent had never experienced asthmatic symptoms prior to that date. This is thought to be because rye grass pollen was involved, which is so small that can easily infiltrate and inflame our airways.

    Certain pollen makes things worse than others. Juergen Faelchle/Shutterstock

    Some researchers suspect that anthropogenic climate change is actually making things worse. Experiments show that increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide appear to increase the amount of pollen certain plants give off.

    Ultimately, this means that thunderstorm asthma is perhaps more prevalent today than it ever has been through human history and its set to get worse as time ticks on.

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    Pygeum comes from the bark of the African plum tree and has been used in traditional medicine to treat urinary problems since ancient times. It’s often used to treat BPH symptoms, especially in Europe. Because studies on pygeum haven’t been well designed, it’s hard to know for sure whether it’s effective. The American Academy of Family Physicians does not recommend its use.
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