The deadly thunderstorm asthma event in Victoria claimed 10 lives in November, 2016. Picture: Tracey Nearmy/AAP
The deadly thunderstorm asthma event in Victoria claimed 10 lives in November, 2016. Picture: Tracey Nearmy/AAP

Asthma storms: When ‘fresh air’ turns deadly

WHEN the weather turned on November 21, 2016, Melburnians went outside. For many, the decision cost them their lives.

A deadly combination of warm weather, a high pollen count and stormy conditions produced an extremely rare and dangerous phenomenon that lead many to suffer from "thunderstorm asthma".

It hit suddenly and without warning and led to the hospitalisation of 1400 people. Emergency services struggled to cope with calls for help and 10 people died - many waiting for an ambulance to arrive.

One of the victims was law student Hope Carnevali, 20, who "felt wheezy" and went outside to get some "fresh air". She collapsed and died outside her home, the coroner heard.

An inquest which began on Monday heard how many of the seven men and three women who died had one thing in common. They went outside or opened doors or brought the washing in.

 

Hope Carnevali, 20, from Werribee, died after a thunderstorm asthma outbreak in Melbourne.
Hope Carnevali, 20, from Werribee, died after a thunderstorm asthma outbreak in Melbourne.

 

Clarence Lea, 37, had the door open and was out of asthma medication when he became distressed, collapsed and suffered fatal respiratory failure.

Priyantha Peiris, 57, had gone outside to retrieve washing and put his car in the garage before the storm, and later collapsed and died.

Consultant physician at AllergyNet Australia, Dr John Weiner, said November 21 produced the "perfect storm" for 20 per cent of Melburnians who are allergic to pollen.

Dr Weiner said a high pollen count was not ordinarily dangerous but the thunderstorm provided an element that turned it deadly.

"Pollen granules don't go into the lungs because they're too big," he said.

"But with moisture (from a thunderstorm) they rupture into up to 700 tiny particles. They go straight into the lungs."

Those who experienced tightness in their chest and difficulty breathing told news.com.au in 2016 they had felt nothing like it before.

 

A high pollen count mixed with warm temperatures and moisture in the air. Picture: Tracey Nearmy/AAP
A high pollen count mixed with warm temperatures and moisture in the air. Picture: Tracey Nearmy/AAP

 

"I've never had asthma but do get hay fever, mainly itchy eyes and sneezes, but there were weirdly no other hay fever symptoms," Kate Craig, from Melbourne's inner west, said.

"It hit me all of a sudden about 7.30pm, I felt like I couldn't take a full breath and had an awful, chesty, hacking cough. I thought I must have just inhaled some spices while cooking - that's what it felt like."

Gary Nunn said he was in transit when he began to have trouble breathing.

"I'd had bad hay fever all day in Melbourne. In the early evening I got to Melbourne Airport and noticed a new symptom: I was struggling to breathe. This had never happened before," he said.

"It got worse, to the point I was wheezing and finding it hard to catch my breath. It went on for a while so I panicked a bit but then thought, just harden up, it's just a cough. I slept it off on the plane but still felt odd."

Dan Rodgers said it was the first time since childhood that he suffered asthma.

 

Joanne Hagiliassis with her son Dean, who had never had asthma but struggled to breathe on November 21, 2016. Picture: Aaron Francis/The Australian
Joanne Hagiliassis with her son Dean, who had never had asthma but struggled to breathe on November 21, 2016. Picture: Aaron Francis/The Australian

 

"It just surprises you. Many experiencing the same thing may never have had asthma before, so are freaking out 'cause they don't know why they can't breathe."

Professor Jo Douglass, an allergy and respiratory specialist from Royal Melbourne Hospital, told the inquest on Monday how only three of the 10 victims had asthma action plans.

She implored anyone having an asthma emergency to have a reliever puffer, such as Ventolin, on hand and use it generously.

"A very high dose of (reliever) could have been helpful for some," Prof Douglass said.

She said 16 puffs in four minutes was appropriate and there were no health dangers to using a high dose in emergencies.

Executives from Victoria's ambulance and triple-zero authorities are expected to give evidence at the inquest on Tuesday.

- with AAP

rohan.smith1@news.com.au | @ro_smith