On 21 November 2016 Melbourne experienced the world’s largest epidemic thunderstorm asthma event, which was unprecedented in size, severity and impact.
Calls to 000, Ambulance Victoria, and our hospitals were pushed to the limit with huge spikes in callouts, and people presenting to hospital emergency departments.
In the 30 hours from 6pm on 21 November, there was a 672 per cent increase in respiratory-related presentations to Melbourne and Geelong public hospitals (3,365 more presentations than expected based on the three-year average).
Tragically, the event contributed to 10 deaths, which the State Coroner is currently investigating.
A substantial amount of work has been undertaken by the Victorian Government since this event.
In April 2017, the Victorian Government committed $15.56 million to ensure it is better able to predict and respond to similar large-scale events in the future.
The Inspector-General for Emergency Management (IGEM) has lead a state-wide review of the emergency response to the thunderstorm asthma events that occurred on 21-22 November 2016 and released a number of reports.
The department is working with Emergency Management Victoria, Ambulance Victoria, health services, universities, and a wide range of experts to ensure we are better prepared and coordinated in the future.
Actions taken to date
Since the November 2016 event, the department has worked closely with a wide range of stakeholders to develop and implement a comprehensive Thunderstorm Asthma Program to minimise the impact that any future epidemic thunderstorm asthma events may have on the community and the Victorian health system. To date the department has:
- implemented a public health campaign and education programs for the Victorian community and health professionals
- developed expert clinical guidelines to identify and manage those at increased risk
- built and implemented the first Victorian epidemic thunderstorm asthma forecasting system, including an expanded pollen monitoring network
- developed a Real-time Health Emergency Monitoring System, ensuring we can more quickly recognise and better manage a surge in demand on our health services
- revised our State Health Emergency Response Plan and improved how we plan, communicate and work with our health services during emergencies
- developed processes for issuing warnings in real-time on the VicEmergency website and app
- hosted an epidemic thunderstorm asthma symposium with experts from across Australia, published an extensive epidemic thunderstorm asthma literature review, and published a detailed assessment of the known environmental conditions and the health impacts of the event.
The Epidemic thunderstorm asthma program is ongoing and we continue to invest in these initiatives.
Ambulance Victoria completed an internal review of its own activities in response to the thunderstorm asthma event.
Inspector-General of Emergency Management review
In April 2017, the Minister for Health, the Hon. Jill Hennessy MP released the final report of the review by the Inspector-General of Emergency Management into the emergency response to the thunderstorm asthma event that occurred in late November 2016.
The Department of Health and Human Services completed a substantial amount of work in advance of the 2017 grass pollen season, much of which addressed the IGEM’s recommendations following the review of the event. The Review of response to the thunderstorm asthma event of 21-22 November 2016 is available to download from this page, along with the Government's response to the review.
IGEM has also monitored the progress on implementation of the recommendations from the Review of the response to the thunderstorm asthma event 21-22 November 2016. This progress report was published in July 2018 and is available here.
Review by the Coroner
A coronial investigation into this event is currently underway. The focus of the coronial investigation will be on systemic issues, if any, and it will seek to identify avenues through which similar deaths may be prevented in the future.