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There's A Silver Lining In The 'Thunderstorm Asthma' Cloud

It’s the sharp, eye-poking reminder of how serious asthma can be.

01/12/2016 12:17 PM AEDT | Updated 01/12/2016 12:17 PM AEDT
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The freak weather event in Melbourne caused an outbreak of breathing difficulties across the city, resulting in eight deaths.

As one of many parents with a kid with asthma, Melbourne's recent 'thunderstorm asthma' gave me the total willies. The thought of people not being able to breathe and dying helplessly in their loved one's arms on their front lawns is just utterly, utterly devastating. In a modern society where we can send people to the moon, how can something like this happen?

It's very easy to flick off asthma as a common playground condition. I've seen teachers, carers and parents do it, believe me, but if there's any sliver lining to the 'asthma cloud' that descended last week, it's the sharp, eye-poking reminder of how serious asthma can be -- people die of it. According to the World Health Organisation, globally about 250,000 people's lives are cut short from the chronic lung condition each year -- most apparently avoidable.

The scariest moment we had with my daughter Belle was before she was diagnosed with asthma. After jumping around at a play centre on a cold morning, I thought she was being a petulant four-year-old. She kept tugging at me while I was trying to pack up and say goodbye to a friend. She kept saying she wanted to go home -- I'm like: "Yeah alright, I heard you the first time!"

She had an annoying little cough (kind of like those fake ones that people use to interrupt you), but being winter I didn't think too much of it. By the time I got her in the car, just minutes later, and strapped her in, I realised that she couldn't talk, had gone the colour of wax and was fighting for breath.

Not quite believing what I saw, I asked her: "Can you breathe?" She shook her head, unable to speak with wide terrified eyes. Fortunately being literally a few minutes away from the hospital, instead of turning left to go home, I turned right. It's not easy to forget driving your little kid to hospital when you can hear them gasping for breath in the back.

This is the journey that no doubt hundreds of people made to emergency last week at the mercy of the asthma thunderstorm in Melbourne, and with eight deaths now being clocked up -- some never had the chance to do.

When my daughter Belle was in the midst of being diagnosed, a few days after the play centre incident, I was telling a mum friend of mine what had happened -- no doubt over a nerve-steadying glass of wine. She piped up that she always kept Ventolin in her first-aid kit despite her children not having asthma. Quite rightly, she said: "You never know, in regards to your own kids and others coming for play dates when and what they may react to." It was ridiculous that I'd never thought of it myself -- so simple and so sensible.

I'm now fully briefed on asthma, and now realise that one of the signs is a cough, often persistent --not necessarily the hallmark wheeze you'd imagine. I didn't even know that. Asthma is a chronic lung condition (with no cure) where your airways are inflamed and are prone to react and constrict, sometimes suddenly, when exposed to certain 'triggers', making it difficult to breath in or out. I now seem to be getting an idea of what our little one's triggers are -- exercise, dust, cold weather, colds and flu, cats.

Of course there is always the fear that there may be other things you don't know around the corner. However, even though she's only five, she's all over it. To control her asthma she has what they call a 'preventer' puffer twice a day and Ventolin if it raises its ugly head. We've taught her to do both of these herself if need be. On the odd occasion she's even reminded me that she needs her preventer if I've forgotten. I've also learnt and taught her that at the first signs of asthma you get Ventolin in -- quickly.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 235 million people suffer from Asthma globally -- the most common chronic disease among kids. As published by Asthma Australia, 2.3 million Australians, that's one in 10, suffer from it. Alongside the WHO global statistics of 250,000 deaths per year from asthma, The National Asthma Council Australia reveals that in 2015, asthma caused the deaths of 421 Australians. And the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare attributes 37,700 hospitalisations in 2013-14 to asthma -- remembering the most likely people to be hospitalised for Asthma are kids under 15.

The Worldwide Health Organisation in its 2007 Global surveillance, prevention and control of Chronic Respiratory Diseases report says: "For the past 40 years, the prevalence of asthma has increased in all countries in parallel with that of allergy. Asthma is still increasing worldwide as communities adopt modern lifestyles and become urbanised. With a projected increase in the proportion of the world's population living in urban areas, there is likely to be a marked increase in the number of people with asthma worldwide over the next two decades. It is estimated that there may be an additional 100 million people with asthma by 2025."

Although the 2014 Global Asthma Report indicates that the increase is happening mainly in low and middle-income countries, Australia still has one of the highest prevalences of asthma in the world -- and the reason why isn't clear.

And while scientists debate the many reasons and combinations for increasing asthma globally and the high prevalence in Australia -- from diet, to increased pollution (fossil fuel abuse, hello!), allergens and increased hygiene (certainly looking at the mess in our house, we're not a great case study for the hygiene hypothesis) many of us are managing asthma in our homes and both children and adults alike are being diagnosed every day.

The question is when are they going to be diagnosed, and when are you first going to find out? Since having a child with asthma, I have discovered you can buy Ventolin over the counter for not much more than a cup of coffee or milkshake. I know having a Ventolin may not have changed the course of events for many of the people last week an extreme event with so many factors at play -- and it's even more disturbing as a parent of an asthma child to know that many of those severely affected last week were known asthma sufferers and didn't respond to Ventolin. I can't imagine the pain of the poor families who have lost their loved ones. But if popping one in your first-aid kit could save just one kid from having to do that emergency run, it could be the best $7 you have ever spent.

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