Thunderstorm asthma strikes Melbourne

Melbourne, Australia has just experienced a severe storm of a very unusual kind and thousands of people experienced respiratory problems that were bad enough to seek medical assistance. The rush in demand at hospitals between 18:00 and 23:00 forced authorities to implement emergency measures.

The impact of these storms gives them their name ‘Thunderstorm Asthma‘ and it seems that it can effect anyone, asthmatics and non-asthmatics alike. The BBC report states that 1,870 people called into the ambulance service on the night when normal demand during that time is 300. There were 2 deaths recorded.

The BBC report also suggests that the cause of these respiratory health problems was a type of pollen that was measured at very high levels, however we can suggest that fungi are also likely to have played a part. It could be that as with may other places round the world pollen levels are recorded routinely for the purpose of providing warning to allergic rhinitis sufferers (hay fever) on a daily basis. However airborne fungal levels are rarely measured as until recently they have not been thought to be a health hazard. This storm tells us otherwise!

Evidence from the US suggests that the fungus Alternaria sporulates in high numbers when the humidity reaches a certain high level and the high winds also associated with a storm disturb the spores and lift them into the air – and into the mouths and noses of people.

It could be that this Australian thunderstorm asthma event (only the second of its type in a century) was caused by a different allergen compared with the US cases, but we would certainly like to see the fungal levels recorded in Melbourne to disprove our theory!

Editor-in-Chief , National Aspergillosis Centre
Editor-in-Chief, Research Associate for the National Aspergillosis Centre and PPI Lead for Respiratory Section of the Manchester Biomedical Research Centre