Ambulances in Melbourne were overwhelmed by the thunderstorm asthma epidemic.
Ambulances in Melbourne were overwhelmed by the thunderstorm asthma epidemic. Trevor Veale

Should Coast residents be worried about storm asthma?

OPINION: Three lives were claimed by thunderstorm asthma in Melbourne this week.

One was a young woman who died on her front lawn waiting for an ambulance.

Storm asthma reportedly occurs when moisture and strong winds causes pollen to enlarge and fracture into particles small enough to enter airways and lungs. Storms can also cause concentrations of pollen close to the ground.

So is storm asthma something we should be worried about on the Sunshine Coast?

We have storms. Lots of them. And we have asthmatics.

In fact, the prevalence of asthma is "extremely high” on the Sunshine Coast, according to the Comprehensive Needs Assessment 2014-2015 of Medicare Local.

The number of asthma sufferers on the Coast was significantly high for Australia and Queensland, the Medicare Local report states, with Buderim having the highest number of asthma sufferers (5125) followed by the Maroochy hinterland (3172) and Coolum-Mudjimba (3054) in 2007-2008.

But does this mean we should all keep a stockpile of asthma puffers as high as the ceiling in storm season? What makes a storm turn into a deadly asthma epidemic?

In short I think the answer is no - and at least one Coast-based specialist respiratory physician agrees with me.

Only three places in the world - Melbourne, London and the NSW town of Wagga - have had thunderstorm asthma epidemics, according to the Australian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy.

In the 20-year working experience of Birtinya-based respiratory specialist Dr Craig Wright, storms have never caused an epidemic on the Coast.

But the event down south this week is a timely reminder for asthma sufferers to use preventative medicine regularly, Dr Wright says. These include inhaled steroids and bronchodilators, which prevent the onset of severe asthmatic attacks when used regularly, he said.

The question of whether our ambulance services would be able to cope if the number of calls for help went up sixfold is also worth proper investigation.

Melbourne had a storm asthma epidemic in 2010 - yet six years later, the ambulance service seems to have been underprepared. Perhaps it's unreasonable to expect any one service to have the ability to immediately respond to a sixfold increase in the number of calls for help.

Wouldn't it make sense to have private ambulances that could be called on in times of dangerous shortage? Perhaps they could provide non-emergency patient transport, taking the pressure off public ambulances, as the Buderim-based EMT Medical Services do.

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