Updated 11/29/16 9am. Originally posted 11/27/16 2pm.
Eight people have now died after a rare condition known as a “thunderstorm asthma attack” struck Australia’s second-largest city, officials said .
The eighth victim died in a hospital earlier today from medical complications stemming from a severe thunderstorm that struck Melbourne on Monday night, a Health Department statement said.
The storm soaked rye grass pollen grains in the air around the city; the wet grains exploded and dispersed irritants over the city in gusty storm winds, lodging the particles deep into lungs. A rye grass pollen grain can hold up to 700 tiny starch granules, measuring 0.6 to 2.5 μm, small enough to reach the lower airways in the lung. High winds in strong storms can spread these tiny particles over a great distance, impacting hundreds or thousands of people with the potential for severe respiratory problems after they inhale these particles into their lungs. Around a third of patients who suffered asthma attacks on Monday reported never having asthma before.
The storm overwhelmed emergency services and hospitals in this city of 4.5 million people, with 8,500 receiving hospital treatment. 7 people remain hospitalized, with 1 in critical condition.
The phenomenon was first recognized and studied after three recorded events in the 1980s; the first was in Birmingham, England in 1983 and the second and third ocurred in Melbourne, Australia too in 1987 and 1989. Since then there have been further reports of widespread thunderstorm asthma in Atlanta, Georgia and overseas in Wagga Wagga, Australia, London, England, Naples, Italy, and Ahvaz, Iran. The attack that struck Melbourne this week is the largest / worst on record.
Melbourne resident David McGann said the phenomenon this week was three to four times worse than his regular asthma had ever been. “It was insane, I couldn’t get off the couch for three hours last night just due to shortness of breath,” he told the local news channel, ABC. “It felt like an elephant had his foot on my chest for about four hours.”