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Breathe easy: Melbourne’s thunderstorm asthma breakthrough 

Think back to November 2016. Melbourne was blindsided by a rare and deadly event that left the city dizzy.  A storm rolled across the city, sweeping up pollen particles that triggered severe asthma attacks in thousands of people.

It turned out to be the largest of its kind in the world and that the asthma thunderstorm left Melbourne and Geelong’s public hospitals inundated, with 672 per cent more respiratory-related presentations than normal. Since then, many Melbournians have been on a quest to better understand how these uncommon storms can be predicted and how their effects can be minimised.  

One Melburnian, Deakin University PhD student, Kira Morgan Hughes, is helping to pioneer technology that will minimise the risk of thunderstorm asthma to ensure disasters like November 2016 remain a thing of the past 

First things first: what is thunderstorm asthma and why Melbourne? 

While it’s considered a relatively rare occurrence, thunderstorm asthma is the triggering of an asthma attack by environmental conditions caused by a local thunderstorm. 

What are the symptoms of thunderstorm asthma? 

Think your typical asthma attack – shortness of breath, wheezing –  but turbocharged by nature’s fury.  In some cases, thunderstorm asthma can require hospitalisation. 

Who is at risk of experiencing thunderstorm asthma? 

Those who are more at risk of getting caught in thunderstorm asthma’s crosshairs are those who already have asthma, have had childhood asthma, or suffer from hay fever asthma. Having both asthma and hay fever can put you at an even greater risk during a thunderstorm event.  

What caused the 2016 thunderstorm asthma event in Melbourne? 

Why Melbourne? Why 2016? The thunderstorm asthma mystery persists. ‘There’s no certain reason why the event of November 2016 was so disastrous, or why it happened in Melbourne,’ explains Kira. ‘But it has been linked to a high amount of grass pollen in the air, linked with a thunderstorm rolling through the state’.  

How is thunderstorm asthma currently detected in Melbourne 

To keep an eye on thunderstorm asthma, Melbourne currently relies on pollen monitoring stations, including two of which are located at Deakin University’s Waurn Ponds and Burwood campuses.  

These large machines act as a giant vacuum, sucking in air and sending data back to specialist scientists to analyse. 

But there’s a catch: they’re slower than a dial-up modem from the 90s. ‘The stations are extremely outdated and incredibly slow and can take at least a full day to collect samples that need to be manually analysed. Because of this, it can cause numerous issues like inaccuracies with pollen counts or missing thunderstorm asthma events.’ 

Driven by her own battles with hay fever and asthma, Kira was inspired to develop a solution to these detection issues.  

The warning system that will reduce Melbourne’s risk of thunderstorm asthma  

Kira’s research aims to improve pollen-detection technology and help reduce the risks of thunderstorm asthma.  Her newly developed system features a highly sensitive sensor that can automatically detect pollen in less than one hour.  

‘It works very similarly to a smoke detector and a scale’, Kira explains. ‘On top of the gold surface, we attach chemicals, with antibodies being the most important for its function. Antibodies match up to specific allergens in the air, like a lock and key system.’  

Kira and her team hope to develop a wearable version of this sensor, allowing people to detect rising pollen levels on the go – imagine having a pollen radar in your pocket.  

The story behind the innovative thunderstorm asthma research 

Kira’s journey began with a Bachelor of Biomedical Science, majoring in Molecular Life Sciences, followed by Honours in thunderstorm asthma research.  

Her personal battle with hay fever and asthma drew her to this field, and her dedication has only grown. 

When asked about her journey from her bachelor degree to creating new and innovative technology, Kira said ‘my supervisory team have been incredibly supportive throughout my research journey. I did my Honours through COVID, which was an incredibly stressful time but both Deakin and my team were supportive and continue to be throughout my PhD’.  

Kira’s passion for sharing her research and knowledge doesn’t only exist within the classroom or lab, either. Not only has her research experience given her the opportunity to present her findings on thunderstorm asthma in Melbourne to secondary school students, but Kira has also been lucky enough to speak at comedy festivals and internationally. 

So, how can I prepare for thunderstorm asthma? 

To stay prepared for thunderstorm asthma in Melbourne, Kira suggests keeping a close eye on the Melbourne Pollen and Deakin AirWatch websites during Spring. Also, follow the Department of Health on social media. 

Kira’s best advice: ‘If you feel that you’re at risk, my best advice is to make sure to have an asthma action plan in place with your GP, make sure to have your medication on hand and make sure to inform your friends and family on a high-risk day.’  

If your symptoms are severe, it is recommended to follow Government health advice and call 000 in an emergency.  

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Kira Morgan Hughes
Kira Morgan Hughes

Sessional Academic,

Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment

Deakin University

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