In November 2016, an unprecedented epidemic thunderstorm asthma event in Victoria, Australia, resulted in many thousands of people developing breathing difficulties in a very short period of time, including ten deaths, and created extreme demand across the Victorian health services. To better prepare for future events, a pilot forecasting system for epidemic thunderstorm asthma (ETSA) risk has been developed for Victoria. The system uses a categorical risk-based approach, combining operational forecasting of gusty winds in severe thunderstorms with statistical forecasts of high ambient grass pollen concentrations, which together generate the risk of epidemic thunderstorm asthma. This pilot system provides the first routine daily epidemic thunderstorm asthma risk forecasting service in the world that covers a wide area, and integrates into the health, ambulance and emergency management sector.
Epidemic thunderstorm asthma events have historically occurred infrequently, and no event of similar magnitude has impacted the Victorian health system since. However, during the first three years of the pilot, 2017-2019, two high asthma presentation events and four moderately high asthma presentation events were identified from public hospital emergency department records. The ETSA risk forecasts showed skill in discriminating between days with and without health impacts. However, even with hindsight of the actual weather and airborne grass pollen conditions, some high asthma presentation events occurred in districts that were assessed as low risk for ETSA, indicating the challenge of predicting this unusual phenomenon.