Australia launches ‘thunderstorm asthma’ warning system

Canberra: A year after a freak “thunderstorm asthma” outbreak killed nine and led to thousands being hospitalised in the southern Australian city of Melbourne, the Victorian state government on Sunday launched a world-first alert system to prevent a similar disaster in the future.

On November 21 last year, a freak event occurred where heavy rain affected pollens in the air, killing nine asthmatics and affecting thousands more, forcing the government to spend more than Australian $15 million ($12 million) in developing a warning system.

On Sunday, Victorian Health Minister Jill Hennessy said the new system would keep authorities ahead of the threat, Xinhua news agency reported.

“The great challenge with thunderstorm asthma and epidemic thunderstorm asthma was its scale, its severity, and the fact that we did not have a prediction system in place which would enable us to understand what was coming,” she said .

Meanwhile, Paul Holman, spokesperson for Ambulance Victoria, said that last year caught both asthma sufferers and authorities off-guard, and the new warning system – which takes data from five new monitoring locations – takes into account pollen levels across the city and weather conditions.

“We never envisaged being overwhelmed (last year), we never envisaged not having ambulances to send to emergencies, we never envisaged not being able to answer (emergency) calls,” Holman told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on Sunday.

“We didn’t have a process to tell people that we couldn’t come and we couldn’t attend and give them the right advice.”

“What we had in effect was a major hazardous material, a HazMat, a gas laden with toxic material hitting a whole range of people.”

The warning system will be active on a website and through a phone app, and will alert users to potentially devastating weather events before they occur.