More than 2,000 people suffered breathing problems when a severe storm combined with an extremely high pollen count to cause what has been described as “thunderstorm asthma”.
Hope Carnevali, a 20-year-old law student, died on the front lawn of her family’s home as she waited for an ambulance.
Omar Moujalled, an 18-year-old just weeks away from graduating from high school, died on his way to hospital after a massive asthma attack.
Apollo Papadopoulos, 35, and Clarence Leo, the owner of a security company, also died following asthma attacks.
High demand for ambulance for breathing issues due to weather. Only call 000 in an emergency & consider other options for minor complaints
— Ambulance Victoria (@AmbulanceVic) November 21, 2016
Ambulance services were overwhelmed with 1,900 calls for help during a five-hour period in which they would typically have seen just 345.
The city’s hospitals were swamped by people with breathing problems and paramedics were so stretched that police and firefighters were called in to help.
Victoria’s health minister Jill Hennessy described the situation as being like “a bomb had gone off”, telling 774 ABC Melbourne radio station that the health system was “stretched to the limit”.
Professor George Braitberg, director of emergency medicine at The Royal Melbourne Hospital, said the event was one of the most extraordinary occasions in his entire career.
Thank you to our dedicated staff members who worked to treat an incredible influx of asthma and respiratory patients #thunderstormasthma
— Western Health (@western_health) November 22, 2016
He said: “We saw a record 335 patients in the 24 hour period of 21 November 2016. On a typical day in (A&E) we treat approximately 200 patients a day.”
Dr John Weiner, consultant physician at AllergyNet Australia, said the conditions seen in Melbourne on Monday night had been “the perfect storm” for the 20% of the city’s residents who are allergic to pollen.
“This is just the fourth major episode of this type in 30 years in Melbourne,” he told news.com.au.
According to The Royal Melbourne Hospital, the last event in Melbourne was in 2011, but it was not as severe.
“It’s been recorded elsewhere in the world but Melbourne is prone because of high pollen counts and prevailing northerly winds,” Dr Weiner said.
He added the amount of pollen in the air on Monday was much higher than usual and that the thunderstorm had made this high count particularly dangerous.
“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.”
He said the symptoms are the same as typical asthma but this could be a “dramatic event for people who haven’t had asthma before because it occurs so suddenly”.