Deakin expert warns thunderstorm asthma season could rival 2016 epidemic

Media release

20 October 2021

Conditions are ripe for a significant thunderstorm asthma season that could rival the 2016 epidemic and come at a time when Victoria’s health system is already under immense strain as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Deakin environmental allergist and Director of Deakin AIRwatch, Associate Professor Cenk Suphioglu, said forecasts for the peak of the season predict the potential for a ‘perfect storm’, with high pollen counts, stormy weather and humidity expected to combine from the start of November.

"The pressure on the health system at the moment is significant," said Associate Professor Suphioglu.

"Due to COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions on the rise, now more than ever, people must take charge of their health. Don’t rely on the strained ambulance and hospital systems to come to the rescue because by then, it might be too late."

According to Associate Professor Suphioglu, there are three critical areas of concern this season:

  • Stormy, wet spring weather is predicted for November, giving rise to more grass growth and therefore, a high pollen count
  • People with compromised immune systems after earlier contracting COVID-19
  • Pressure on the health system with climbing COVID-19 cases and stretched resources

"Much has been learnt from the epidemic of 2016," said Associate Professor Suphioglu. "We know what causes these events, and we now know how to protect ourselves as best we can.

"However the difference in 2021 is that the health professionals are rightly focussed on treating an overwhelming number of COVID-19 patients, and really, it’s prudent that people take charge of their health and know what to do on those days highlighted as having potential for thunderstorm asthma."

In 2016, ten people died, and over 12,000 patients presented at emergency departments across the state during a thunderstorm asthma event on November 21 and 22.

Asthmatics and those who may now have a compromised respiratory system due to having had COVID-19 should see their GP and make sure they have an up-to-date Asthma Action Plan.

Common symptoms of thunderstorm asthma include breathlessness, chest tightness, wheezing or coughing.

"In 2016, people who had never before experienced traditional asthma, but were allergic to grass pollen, suffered from thunderstorm asthma," said Associate Professor Suphioglu. "No one is immune from thunderstorm asthma, and anyone with a history of grass pollen allergy together with asthma or respiratory conditions should stay indoors if a thunderstorm asthma event is occurring."

Note: Associate Professor Cenk Suphioglu is available for interview.

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Media release School of Life and Environmental Sciences