3 Australians critically ill after rare thunderstorm asthma


MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Three patients remained critically ill on Thursday, three days after a rare condition known as thunderstorm asthma killed four people and sent hundreds to hospitals in Australia’s second-largest city, an official said.

Doctors were amazed there were not more fatalities given the numbers of people who suffered cardiac arrests and struggled to breathe when a wild thunderstorm struck Melbourne on Monday night, Victoria state Health Minister Jill Hennessy said.

The storm caused rain-sodden ryegrass pollen to explode and disperse over the city, with ruptured particles penetrating deep into lungs. Almost one third of patients who suffered asthma attacks on Monday reported never having asthma before.

Nine patients remained in intensive care units on Thursday after the unprecedented event that overwhelmed Melbourne’s hospitals and emergency services, Hennessy said. The condition of three of those patients was listed as critical, she said.

“I’m pleased we haven’t had more deaths … but those deaths are four deaths too many,” Hennessy told reporters.

Experts were trying to determine whether asthma thunderstorms could be predicted, and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and other government agencies met with pollen scientists Thursday to discuss whether future events could be accurately forecast.

Melbourne University botanist Ed Newbigin, who runs Melbourne’s main pollen-counting station, said forecasting such events should be possible.

“Thunderstorms and high pollen levels in the air occur reasonably frequently this time of year, but not all those events result in episodes of thunderstorm asthma,” Newbigin said.

“We can probably figure out what are the requirements for producing thunderstorm asthma and come up with, if not a perfect forecast system, at least a pretty good one,” he said.

The world’s first recorded thunderstorm asthma event occurred in Melbourne in 1987. Similar events have happened in the United States, Canada, Britain and Italy. The last major event in Melbourne was in November 2010.

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