The week started hot in Melbourne. The temperature climbed to 38 degrees Celsius, supported by a northerly breeze that blew in from grasslands north of the state. The change came in late afternoon. The dark clouds on the horizon were black and ominous.
If you live in Melbourne this kind of weather is a familiar story.
How could a storm, that we all have come to expect, lead to the deaths of four people, with many more in intensive care units and thousands and thousands of people treated, some in hospitals, some in doctor’ surgeries for asthma.
This is an area that our family has had some experience in.
It was the reason that we left Sydney, after a summer of hospitalisations of our then two year old son.
The technical explanation is that when there is a lot of pollen in the air, the storm leads the pollen to swell. When the storm sweeps in the pollen in the upper atmosphere is condensed. The electrical currents then split the pollens into miniscule particles. The pollen effectively becomes a thousand times more potent in minutes.
In Sydney we would arrive in at the children’s ward of St George hospital and be one of the first there. By the end of the day the ward would be overflowing.
Our health system does a brilliant job. They did a brilliant job in Melbourne this week. A code red was declared. Workers after long shifts stayed on duty. Off duty workers were called in. Every ambulance was put in service. Paramedics visited houses in their own cars. This was a truly heroic response and I have no doubt that many lives were saved as a result.
In Melbourne, asthma storms are relatively rare. The last was six years ago. But with the way the weather is we can expect more. So what do we need to do?
The first thing is that we need a health warning issued. It should be a little like the Total Fire Ban Warnings we grew up, you know, “today is a day of total fire ban in the State of Victoria, no fires in the open air….” I can literally hear the newsreader announcing it, it was repeated so many times growing up. But we knew it was serious.
We need the same thing for asthma storms. Something like “today is a day of potential asthma storms. Keep inside wherever possible and consult your doctor immediately if you experience breathing difficulty.”
The second thing we need to do is prepare our doctors. There was one story of a doctor prescribing tablets, presumably thinking it was a common allergy. In this world of modern communications we need a system where every doctor’s surgery is issued with warnings that are regularly updated. Doctors should be required (and of course paid by the Government) to deliver bulk billing services, no matter if they are purely private practice, in times when it is likely that an asthma storm is on the way.
Doctor’s surgeries should all have Ventolin and the ability to deliver to patients.
This should be part of the responsibility of being a doctor in our national system.
What we have to understand is that asthma storms are not just individual cases of people with asthma. They are the equivalent of natural disasters, and they should be treated like that.
We have the systems and the knowledge to prevent this ever happening again. We owe it to our children to do so.