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Thunderstorm asthma alert system launched in Victoria to prevent repeat of disaster

Kate Doyle, Ben Deacon and Sarina Locke, Tuesday October 10, 2017 - 10:28 EDT

A new world-first alert system has been launched in Victoria in a bid to prevent another thunderstorm asthma disaster like the one in Melbourne last year that killed nine people.

The system is part of a $15 million joint effort by the Victorian Government in partnership with the Bureau of Meteorology and Melbourne and Deakin universities.

It takes into account weather conditions, hospital presentations and pollen levels, with the aid of five new pollen monitoring sites.

A website and app provide forecasts, information and alerts about potential thunderstorm asthma conditions.

This new alert is in response to , when Ambulance Victoria became overwhelmed by desperate calls from thousands of people with acute respiratory problems.

Ambulance Victoria's Health Commander Paul Holman said it had been extremely traumatic.

"We never envisaged being overwhelmed, we never envisaged not having ambulances to send to emergencies, we never envisaged not being able to answer Triple 0 calls,'' Mr Holman said.

''We didn't have a process to tell people that we couldn't come and we couldn't attend and give them the right advice."

What causes thunderstorm asthma?

was the result of plentiful rye-grass pollen and a thunderstorm that lifted and ruptured pollen into tiny fragments.

Mr Holman said the pollen grains had been saturated with water before they exploded into millions of fine particles.

''Those fine particles were delivered in a mist with that wind right across Melbourne," Mr Holman said.

"So what we had in effect was a major hazardous material, a HazMat, a gas laden with toxic material hitting a whole range of people."

Thunderstorm asthma is a well documented phenomenon in south eastern Australia. Wagga Wagga, Newcastle and Canberra have all had events in the past.

Thunderstorm asthma does not just occur in traditional asthma sufferers, it affects those who have an allergic reaction to the grains in the air.

Hayfever sufferers at risk

Guy Marks, Professor of Respiratory Medicine at the University of NSW, said it affected people sensitive to pollen.

He said in most cases that was grass pollen, but it also happened internationally with fungal spores.

''They cause swelling in the airways and contraction of smooth muscle around the airways and cause the airways to narrow, which is classic asthma," Professor Marks said.

Those who suffer from hayfever are very often at risk.

The Victorian Department of Health advised those who suffered from breathing difficulties to remain indoors when an event was forecast.

People were also advised to turn air conditioners to recycle and to have medication nearby.

People need to help themselves

The nine victims of last year's storm — that also hospitalised 10,000 people — could not be reached by the ambulance service in time.

The new early warning system will help Victorian emergency services to be proactive and prepare in advance for thunderstorm asthma events.

But Mr Holman said communities also needed to take responsibility for their own health.

"The expectations on ambulance, fire services, police that we're going to come and save you are unrealistic in our environment,'' he said.

''We have to talk with the community, engage with the community first and foremost before we do anything else."

"We are just boys and girls trying to do the best we can in adverse situations.

''We need to get that message across to our community and our politicians — to think as a community. How can we support ourselves?"

The forecasting system will run from October 1 until the end of December during the Victorian grass pollen season.

To access the forecasts, Victorians should download the Vic Emergency App or visit .


© ABC 2017

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