Breathe Easy: Management of Respiratory Disorders for Healthcare Professionals

shutterstock_162162821-2.jpg

The Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Glebe, Sydney is offering a FREE full day symposium. World renowned Woolcock researchers and clinical experts will cover the key recommendations for recognising, diagnosing and managing patients with asthma and COPD.

Click here to view the program.

About this course: An application will be submitted to the RACGP for this activity to be accredited for 14 Category 2 points, as part of the RACGP Quality Improvement & Continuing Professional Development Program in the 2017-19 Triennium. Activity number to be allocated.

When: Saturday, 21 October 2017. 8.15am - 5.15pm

Location: Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, 431 Glebe Point Road, Glebe NSW 2037

Cost: Free. Catering provided.

This educational activity is supported by an independent educational grant from GlaxoSmithKline Australia

TICKET INFORMATION:
General Admission RSVP: Face to face meeting at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research
Webinar: Watch our live webinar on the day

Update for GPs in Neurodegenerative Disorders, Psychiatry and Psychology

UPDATE FOR GPS IN NEURODEGENERATIVE DISORDERS, PSYCHIATRY AND PSYCHOLOGY

shutterstock_133874900.jpg

The Woolcock Institute of Medical Research is inviting you to come along to a full day GP symposium. We will discuss the assessment, treatment and management of dementia, teenage psychiatry and internet addiction, sleep and neurodegeneration, sleep walking and RBD, adult ADHD and sleep, insomnia, depression, sleep stress and trauma.

Come along to hear the latest research, discuss relevant case studies and identify alternative assessments and treatments that may assist your practice.

Click here to view the program.

About this course: An application will be submitted to the RACGP for this activity to be accredited for 40 Category 1 points, as part of the RACGP Quality Improvement & Continuing Professional Development Program in the 2017-19 Triennium. Activity number to be allocated.

When: 16 September 2017,  8:00 am – 4:30 pm 

Location: Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, 431 Glebe Point Road, Glebe NSW 2037

Cost: $90

Respiratory Physiology Education Day 2017

shutterstock_85447960.jpg

The Woolcock Institute of Medical Research strives to improve the respiratory and sleep health of Australians through world-class research, care and education.

We regularly hold symposia and seminars for healthcare professionals including general practitioners, nurses, pharmacists, and dentists. At these events, our Woolcock researchers and clinicians present the latest scientific evidence sourced from both the institute’s own research and from leading experts around the globe. Assessment, management and treatment of respiratory and sleep disorders are discussed in an engaging and relevant format, allowing healthcare professionals to learn about advances in respiratory and sleep health, and effectively integrate this new knowledge into their medical practice.

Please find a summary of our Respiratory Physiology Education Day below:   

This educational day was hosted for respiratory medicine trainees, physicians and respiratory scientists. Our aim was to educate these healthcare professionals in complex physiology in relation to airways disease. All attendees were given feedback forms after completion of the activity to assess the value Healthcare professionals gained from this event. Results were as follows:  

  • 100% of attendees indicated they would recommend this course to others
  • 100% of attendees indicated that they would like to attend more courses in the future
  • 65% of attendees rated their learning needs “entirely met”
  • 59% of attendees rated their overall satisfaction as “very satisfied” and 41% rated “satisfied”

This demonstrates a highly positive response rate from healthcare professionals in evaluating the quality of the education we delivered and knowledge gained. 

We are proud to have successfully delivered this highly relevant educational event and thank GlaxoSmithKline Australia for their support and enabling us to deliver high quality content to this audience.

For our upcoming 2017 educational dates visit http://woolcock.org.au/gp-symposium/  or email info@woolcock.org.au to register your interest.

Aussie Asthmatics No Better Off On More Costly Drug: Study

asthma

Australians are relying on expensive asthma medication despite new research showing many New Zealanders with asthma fare just the same on a more affordable inhaler.

Important new research from the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney has confirmed high rates of poor asthma control in Australia and across the ditch. The study, published today in the international journal Respirology, shows 45 per cent of Australians and 41 per cent New Zealanders live with poorly controlled asthma symptoms. Further, almost 30 per cent of people with asthma in both countries required urgent health care for asthma in the past year.

“Interestingly we found that most Australians with asthma are prescribed a combination preventer medication while New Zealand achieved the same asthma results overall with more use of a basic preventer inhaler that, in Australia, is more affordable for patients,” says lead researcher and asthma specialist Professor Helen Reddel. “This suggests that for some Australian patients, their extra spending may not be paying off.” 

More than two million Australians have asthma, a chronic lung condition that inflames and narrows the airways, causing wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and coughing. The causes are still not well understood, but in patients with asthma, the triggers for symptoms are known to include viral infections, exercise, and exposure to allergens and irritants. Preventer inhalers markedly reduce the risk and symptoms of asthma if they are taken regularly, but many patients fail to use them regularly, instead relying on a quick-relief inhaler that doesn’t treat the asthma itself, the ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff solution.

Professor Reddel and her colleagues from Melbourne, Christchurch and Wellington set out to investigate whether use of the combination preventer medication was linked to better asthma results for patients. The study involved more than 3000 randomly-selected Australians and New Zealanders with asthma who completed an online survey focused on asthma symptom control, medication use, and doctors’ visits over the period of one year. 

“Guidelines in both countries recommend that most people with asthma should be taking a simple daily asthma preventer inhaler to reduce symptoms and reduce the risk of serious flare-ups,” Professor Reddel says. “However, we discovered that in both countries, almost half of the people prescribed any type of preventer medications are not taking them regularly.”

Guidelines in both countries also recommend that asthma treatment should start with a basic preventer inhaler, with the combination inhalers prescribed if asthma is still not well-controlled despite the medication being taken correctly and regularly. In Australia, the simple preventer inhaler is more affordable for patients than the combination preventer, but in New Zealand, the cost to patients is the same.

Despite this, out of those using a preventer in Australia, 82 per cent were taking a combination preventer inhaler, compared with just 44 per cent in New Zealand. Kiwis were more likely to use a basic (single medication) preventer inhaler. The story becomes even more interesting when we look at how often patients said they were taking their preventer inhaler - in both countries combined, the combination inhalers were more likely to be taken regularly than simple preventer inhalers (61 per cent vs 47 per cent), but more New Zealanders than Australians were taking a preventer inhaler regularly (43 per cent vs 34 per cent).

The most important statistic – rates of uncontrolled asthma that leave patients at risk of asthma attacks – were equally poor in both countries. “Despite the greater use of combination inhalers in Australia, Australia’s results are no better,” Professor Reddel says. “This suggests that some Australian patients could be better off if they considered moving to the more affordable basic preventer therapy, as long as they made sure to take it every day.”

Explaining the trans-Tasman differences, Professor Reddel says New Zealanders pay less for their asthma medication than Australians, but until recently, access to combination therapies (which are more expensive for government) was more tightly regulated in New Zealand than Australia. “Also, in Australia, reliever inhalers are available over-the-counter without a prescription, so many patients with uncontrolled asthma in Australia rely on quick relief medications that don’t actually treat their asthma, without seeing their GP.”

She called on doctors and pharmacists to make patients aware that choices are available for preventer medications. “In Australia, almost all of the basic asthma preventer inhalers are more affordable for patients than are combination inhalers, but there is little awareness of this,” the specialist says. “Since cost is often an important factor for patient decisions about medications, it would be good to make patients and doctors in Australia aware that there are more affordable options available, that for many patients would work just as well.”

Given the high rates of poorly-controlled asthma in both countries, urgent work is also needed to boost use of preventer medications in general, she says. “Used daily and used correctly, a preventer inhaler is the very best tool a person with asthma has to ensure their condition is well controlled and reduce their risk of a flare-up,” Professor Reddel says. “Most people only need a low dose to get the full benefit, and yet so many people aren’t taking it regularly.”

“My advice is please use your preventer inhaler, and have someone check that you are using it correctly. It will help protect you, keep you out of hospital and it may even save your life.”

Do you have insomnia?

insomnia study

The Bellberry Human Research Ethics Committee has reviewed and approved this study (Protocol number 2016-02-104) in accordance with the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2007) incorporating all updates. Australia and New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry number 12614001293651.

Do you want better sleep at night and better concentration during the day?

At the Woolcock we are trialling a combination of a behavioural intervention with a short script of a new medication that we hope will improve sleep and daytime performance.

This study requires two visits to the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Glebe, NSW

If you would like to find out more about this study, please follow this link to register your interest. 

Dementia Clues: What Your Sleep Says About Your Brain

As seen on Channel 7 News: 

Whether you’re a night owl, a day napper or a sleep walker, your bedtime habits could hold vital clues about the health of your brain, experts say.

Australian sleep and brain specialists are investigating how sleep patterns – particularly when and how much you sleep - can predict if you will develop Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease or mental health problems later in life.

The trailblazing work by NeuroSleep, the NHMRC Centre for Translational Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology in Sydney, will use its important findings to develop new sleep therapies that can slow neurodegeneration, allowing Australians to live longer, healthier lives. 

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that sleep patterns can predict dementia and other brain conditions long before more obvious symptoms of disease show themselves,” explains NeuroSleep Chief Investigator Professor Ron Grunstein.

“For instance, there’s very clear evidence that people who act out their dreams and thrash about in their sleep, have a very high risk of developing Parkinson’s or other neurodegenerative diseases in the next 15 years,” he says. “If these same patients also have small handwriting, a poor sense of smell and difficulty discriminating shades of colour then their disease risk is higher still,  with an 65 per cent chance of dementia in the next three years.”

With Alzheimer’s, the body clock tends to go haywire, leaving people awake overnight. “We think this probably reflects a loss in the secretion of melatonin - the sleep hormone driving circadian rhythm,” Professor Grunstein says. “By testing the timekeeping of the body clock and melatonin secretion we may be able to predict Alzheimer's in the future.”

NeuroSleep, run from the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, is also investigating how broad sleep patterns relate to brain health. “We know that both sleeping too little or too much, or sleeping at a time the body should be awake, are all linked to accelerated brain ageing and dementia,” the sleep scientist says. “There are a number of studies suggesting short or fragmented deep sleep also has dementia links.”

This new knowledge is not meant to alarm. “It’s useful to understand these patterns and if you’re concerned, seek an assessment from a sleep specialist,” Professor Grunstein says. “But we don’t want you to race out and buy a Fitbit to start monitoring your sleep. Instead focus on developing good sleep habits that get you snoozing at the same time each night. Your brain will thank you for it.”

NeuroSleep was awarded $2.5 million in funding over five years from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Centre of Research Excellence (CRE) scheme. The NHMRC and Australian research Council has funded five research fellows from early to senior levels to work in the centre. Since its launch in 2014, the centre has been at the forefront of sleep and brain research. Using a unique collaborative model, NeuroSleep has everyone from physicists to pharmacists, psychiatrists to nutritionists working together to improve sleep and brain health simultaneously. To date, there have been several landmark discoveries, including finding links between early dementia and the snoring condition obstructive sleep apnea, and developing a test to identify those vulnerable to falling asleep while driving.

Through the centre’s clinical arm, Woolcock NeuroSleep Clinic, discoveries are channeled into cutting-edge new treatments for patients suffering from sleep and neurological disorders. As NeuroSleep clinician, Neurologist Professor Simon Lewis, explains, Australians get to reap the rewards of exciting research findings. “Our unique structure means we can move quickly, making bold new discoveries in the lab that our patients get direct benefits from in our clinical sessions down the corridor.” 

Professor Lewis says sleep and the brain are intimately intertwined. “You can’t sleep without a functioning brain and basically without sleep, you don’t have a functioning brain,” he says. “Damage to one causes damage to the other and so it make sense that we both study and treat the two in tandem.”

With humans living longer than ever, it is important to understand how sleep accelerates the ageing process, Professor Lewis says. “We also live in a more complex world with stress, greater urbanisation and longer commutes, noise, and light pollution all challenging sleep,” he says. “Understanding how sleep is influenced by stress, work and the external environment is important in helping us improve human health.”

Please find more information about the Woolcock NeuroSleep Clinic here. 

Watch the full Channel 7 News story here. 

Nicotine Addiction and Smoking Cessation Course - August 2017

Smoking Cessation

Gain in-depth knowledge and skills in nicotine addiction and smoking cessation to work in primary and allied healthcare as a tobacco treatment and smoking cessation specialist.

Hosted by A/Prof Renee Bittoun (Founding Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Smoking Cessation) along with other experts in the field of smoking cessation. A/Prof Bittoun has been teaching this course for over 15 years, regularly updating the content and has many years of experience in clinical practice and professional training regarding smoking cessation.

Topics: Causes, consequences, treatment and research of smoking cessation, nicotine addiction and appropriate evidence based smoking cessation techniques in practical application. Our aim is to improve the implementation and evaluation of programs in Smoking Cessation. This 3 day course includes a USB stick with course materials and a certificate of attendance is awarded on completion.

This course is suitable for health practitioners who have an undergraduate degree in medical/para medical allied health and intend on dedicating a large component of their professional career to smoking cessation.

This is a post-graduate level course. There will be an end of course assessment.

When: 8 - 10 August 2017 

Location: Woolcock Institute, 431 Glebe Point Road, Glebe NSW 2037

Cost: $1,870

Please contact us on info@woolcock.org.au if you require an invoice. 

Sleepy teenagers at home?

SEMINAR: TREATING SLEEP DEPRIVED ADOLESCENTS - FOR PARENTS AND EDUCATORS

Do you have sleepy teenagers at your school or at home? Come along to our evening sleep education seminar here at the Woolcock Institute on Thursday, 8 June 2017.

Optimal learning is impossible without adequate sleep. Adolescent sleep deprivation is increasingly common in our busy world, and carries many risks and consequences for teenagers. Sleep deprivation is related to poor academic outcomes, psychological problems, reduced school attendance, and increasing in risk taking behaviours. Parents and educationalists are therefore well placed to detect sleep deprivation, but implementing specific management strategies is difficult as teenagers are resistant to some components of sleep health treatments. This seminar outlines detailed treatment pathways to help students optimise their sleep.

Presented by Adolescent Sleep Physician, Dr Chris Seton and Adolescent Sleep Psychologist Dr Amanda Gamble from the Woolcock Institute. This seminar will teach you all you need to know about adolescent sleep, as well as showing you how to detect problems and implement practical assistance to your sleepy teenagers.

You can view our sleep education seminar brochure here. 

When: 5.30pm to 9pm on 8 June 2017. 

Where: Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, Level 5, Glebe Point Road, Glebe NSW 2037

For who: Parents, teachers, counsellors, psychologists and others involved in high school education

Cost: $120

CPD Points: This event attracts 3 hours continuing professional development (CPD) for psychologists. For psychologists requiring active CPD points, an additional learning activity can be arranged at the event. 

This seminar is supported by Family Zone.
Family Zone is a complete cyber safety solution for the entire family, at home, at school and on the go. Combining the power of the Family Zone Box, Mobile Zone App and personalised advice from Cyber Experts, parents have complete control over what their kids are doing online and when they are doing it. Family Zone’s innovative cyber safety platform has been chosen by over 180 of Australia’s premier schools and is used by over 200,000 families every day. Family Zone. Every device protected. Everywhere.

Smoking Cessation: Intensive Interventions

Gain in-depth knowledge and skills in nicotine addiction and smoking cessation to work in primary and allied healthcare as a tobacco treatment and smoking cessation specialist.

Hosted by A/Prof Renee Bittoun (Founding Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Smoking Cessation) along with other experts in the field of smoking cessation. A/Prof Bittoun has been teaching this course for over 15 years, regularly updating the content and has many years of experience in clinical practice and professional training regarding smoking cessation.

Topics: Causes, consequences, treatment and research of smoking cessation, nicotine addiction and appropriate evidence based smoking cessation techniques in practical application. Our aim is to improve the implementation and evaluation of programs in Smoking Cessation. This 3 day course includes a USB stick with course materials and a certificate of attendance is awarded on completion.

This course is suitable for health practitioners who have an undergraduate degree in medical/para medical allied health and intend on dedicating a large component of their professional career to smoking cessation.

This is a post-graduate level course. There will be an end of course assessment.

When: 3 day course. 9am to 5pm on Monday 1 May, Tuesday 2 May, Wednesday 3 May 2017

Location: Woolcock Institute of Medical Research - 431 Glebe Point Road, Glebe NSW 2037  

Cost: $1,870

Public Seminar

Join us for a free public seminar and learn about the latest information in sleep and respiratory research, presented by the Woolcock’s leading researchers!

When: 2pm on Tuesday, 11 April 2017 

Where: Lecture Room 1, Level 5, 431 Glebe Point Road, Glebe NSW 2037

Topics: 

  • Respiratory health and the ageing lung presented by A/ Prof Sinthia Bosnic-Anticevich PhD Principal Research Fellow and Director of Development
  • The Ageing Brain: Sleep Disturbance and Risk of Dementia presented by Dr Angela D'Rozario Research Leader, Sleep Neurobiology Theme CIRUS, Sleep and Circadian Research Group

The seminar will be followed by light refreshments.

If you’d like to attend the seminar, due to limited seating, please register by contacting Development Manager Joshua Kim. 

Phone: 02 9114 0414

Email: joshua.kim@woolcock.org.au 

SPEAKERS

Angela D'Rozario

Dr Angela D'Rozario  Research Leader, Sleep Neurobiology Theme CIRUS, Sleep and Circadian Research Group

Sinthia Bosnic-Anticevich

A/ Prof Sinthia         Bosnic-Anticevich  PhD Principal Research Fellow and Director of Development

Institute Celebrates Trailblazing Women Scientists

Australia’s top respiratory health institute will mark International Women’s Day with a lecture from one of the world’s most esteemed women scientists in honour of its own celebrated female founder.

The Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney has invited world-leading respiratory physician Dirkje Postma, Professor of Pathophysiology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, to speak on March 8.

The Ann Woolcock Lecture commemorates the institute’s own trailblazing female founder, whose work revolutionised asthma treatment worldwide. With four women on its board and a female director at its helm, the Woolcock has shown it’s serious about nurturing and promoting women in science.

“We’re excited to be able to host such an eminent female researcher at the Woolcock on such important occasion as International Women’s Day,” Executive Director Professor Carol Armour says.

“Like our own Ann Woolcock, Dirkje Postma enjoys international recognition as a scientist who revolutionised our understanding of respiratory illnesses and how to treat them. Thanks to their work, and the work of a growing number of influential women scientists around the world, we’re closer than ever to beating these diseases.”

Professor Postma will use the lecture to talk about exciting developments in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD, the generic term for a number of lung diseases, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis that cause coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.

The disease affects 14 per cent of Australians aged 40 or over, and 29 per cent of those aged 75 or over.[i] There is no cure and while cigarettes are recognised as a key trigger, one in five patients have never smoked.

Professor Postma will detail exciting new developments in the field that are revealing just how complex the condition is. Far from a simple ‘smoker’s disease’, COPD can also be triggered by chemical exposure, premature birth, genetics, ageing, or a combination of these factors. She will explain how this deeper understanding of COPD and its many faces will pave the way to personalised treatment that better suits the individual patient’s disease history.

“To consider a time when patients with COPD will get tailored care specific to their disease is exciting indeed,” Professor Armour. “It heralds the beginning of better, faster, more effective treatment that helps sufferers retain good quality of life for longer.”

The Ann Woolcock Lecture series honours the contribution of Professor Woolcock to the research community. Invited researchers share their ideas with industry, policy makers, fellow academics, doctors, specialists and patients with a view to prompting new collaborations to improve respiratory health.

The lecture, COPD: A Disease With Many Faces, will be held on Wednesday, 8 March at 5.30pm, at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research headquarters in Glebe, Sydney. RSVP to woolcock.admin@sydney.edu.au or phone 02 9114 0408.

[i] Toelle, B. G., Xuan, W., Bird, T. E., Abramson, M. J., Atkinson, D. N., Burton, D. L., James, A. L., Jenkins, C. R., Johns, D. P., Maguire, G. P., Musk, A. W., Walters, E., Wood-Baker, R., Hunter, M. L., Graham, B. J., Southwell, P. J., Vollmer, W. M., Buist, A., & Marks, G. B. (2013). Respiratory symptoms and illness in older Australians: The Burden of obstructive Lung Disease (BOLD) study. Medical Journal of Australia, 198(3), 144-148.

GP Education

CHRONIC REFRACTORY COUGH SEMINAR

Join the Woolcock clinicians as we consider and discuss patients suffering from chronic refractory cough. We will explain what Chronic Refractory Cough is, the physiology of cough, common causes of chronic cough (upper vs lower airways), neuropathic causes of cough, sleep apnoea and the larynx, respiratory assessment and treatment, ENT assessment and treatment and give practical case studies.

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify the common causes of Chronic Refractory Cough

  • Describe the basic investigations and treatments useful in patients presenting with CRC

  • Identify baseline tests/treatments GP can perform to improve chronic cough in their patient

About this Course: This Category 2 activity has been approved by the RACGP QI&CPD Program. Total Points: 4 CPD points. Activity Number: 89961.

When: Wednesday, 29 March 2017 from 6pm to 9pm. 

Location: Woolcock Institute of Medical Research - 431 Glebe Point Road, Glebe NSW 2037  

Cost: $50

chronic cough

Education for Healthcare Professionals 2017

The Woolcock Institute of Medical Research strives to improve the respiratory and sleep health of Australians through world-class research, care and education.

We regularly hold symposia and seminars for healthcare professionals including general practitioners, nurses, pharmacists and dentists. At these events, our Woolcock researchers and clinicians present the latest scientific evidence sourced from both the institute’s own research and from leading experts around the globe. Assessment, management and treatment of respiratory and sleep disorders are discussed in an engaging and relevant format, allowing healthcare professionals to learn about advances in respiratory and sleep health, and effectively integrate this new knowledge into their medical practice.

Please find a summary of our Breathe Easy 2016 symposium for healthcare professionals below:   

Our aim was to improve patient health through a positive change in healthcare professional performance and knowledge. To assess the value healthcare professionals gained from this educational event all attendees were given feedback forms after completion of the activity. Results were as follows:  

  • 100% of attendees indicated they would recommend this course to others
  • 98% of attendees rated “good” for this course meeting their expectations
  • 83% of attendees rated their learning needs as entirely met
  • 80% of attendees rated this activity as entirely relevant to their practice
  • 46% of attendees rated they are likely and 54% rated very likely to change their follow-up care procedures as a result of attending this course.

This demonstrates a highly positive response rate from healthcare professionals in evaluating the quality of the education we delivered and knowledge gained. 

We are proud to have successfully delivered this highly relevant educational event and thank GlaxoSmithKline Australia for their support and enabling us to deliver high quality content to a large audience.

Testimonials

“I think Woolcock Institute is one of the best respiratory institutes in NSW.”

“Excellent speakers and highly relevant topics for primary care.”

“May I take this opportunity to thank you and the Woolcock Institute for organising such a high quality education seminar for GPs which is extremely useful.  I particularly appreciate the trouble you have taken to make the contents of the talks available online so that we don’t have to take notes. To top it all you now have the videos as well which is even better. I have never been to a seminar which is as well organised as yours. Congratulations! Please keep me posted about your future seminars.”

For our upcoming 2017 educational dates visit http://woolcock.org.au/gp-symposium/  or email info@woolcock.org.au to register your interest. 

One in three asthma cases misdiagnosed

"One in three asthma cases is misdiagnosed, with thousands risking side-effects by taking medication they do not need, as others gamble with death by leaving more serious illness unaddressed. 

Woolcock asthma researcher Professor Helen Reddel said “it is common to find patients who have been given an asthma diagnosis but their symptoms are due to some other condition.”

Professor Reddel said the problem was exacerbated by the low use of lung function testing. A recent report found that fewer than 20 per cent of people diagnosed with asthma had their lung function measured within a year before or after they started preventer treatment.

Subscribe to the Australian to read the full article.

Why we need a national approach to thunderstorm asthma

It's not just about Melbourne: why we need a national approach to 'thunderstorm asthma

Author: Professor Guy Marks, Head of the Respiratory and Environmental Epidemiology Research Group , Woolcock Institute of Medical Research

The tragic deaths of at least six people, apparently from thunderstorm asthma, highlights the risk from environmental hazards, even in seemingly safe urban centres in developed nations like Australia.

Events such as these, and others like the Hazelwood mine fire, bushfire and hazard reduction burns, toxic chemical leaks, infectious disease outbreaks and pandemics should prompt us to ask whether the health protection afforded to Australians is as good as it could be.

At first glance, this thunderstorm asthma seems like a freak event, an unavoidable act of nature caused by a combination of stormy weather breaking down pollen particles into pieces small enough to inhale, triggering an asthma response.

However, this is the not the first such event that has occurred in the world, in Australia or even in Melbourne.

So, how is it that valuable lessons learned from previous events were not applied in Melbourne? And how could we plan for future thunderstorm asthma events to avoid more people suffering the same fate?

Learning from past events

It’s nearly 20 years since Wagga Wagga in New South Wales had a similar severe event. After a series of investigations, we identified who was at risk, how it occurred and how common this was.

We found nearly everyone (96%) who was affected by thunderstorm asthma was allergic to rye grass pollen and had a history of hay fever. Just over one-third of people affected had never had asthma before, and very few (17%) were taking preventer medications for asthma.

Unlike medications taken to relieve the immediate symptoms of an attack (like Ventolin), people take preventer medications (known as inhaled corticosteroids) to control the underlying disease. There are good reasons to believe this class of medications, taken regularly, would protect against attacks induced by exposure to allergens.

We showed thunderstorm outflows trigger these episodes during the pollen season by sweeping up pollen grains, rupturing them to release tiny allergenic particles and concentrating these close to the ground.

People who are allergic to pollen and are in the path of the thunderstorm outflow are likely to inhale air heavily loaded with these tiny pollen allergen-containing particles and, consequently, to experience narrowing of the airways and severe symptoms of asthma.

We also found thunderstorm asthma is quite common. During late spring and summer, nearly half of all epidemics of asthma in six towns in inland New South Wales were associated with thunderstorm outflows.

As a result of these findings, public health, clinical and meteorological authorities in southern New South Wales worked together to reduce the risk of future episodes.

They ran a health promotion campaign to advise “at risk” people – people who “wheeze and sneeze” during spring – to use preventer medications for asthma during spring. The Bureau of Meteorology, working through the health service, also alerted hospitals and other health service providers when a thunderstorm outflow was predicted during spring and summer so they could prepare for the influx of patients.

This is effective health protection. It should have been applied throughout the regions of Australia affected by rye grass pollen and spring-time thunderstorms that are at risk for these events, but it wasn’t. Why?

We need a national approach

We don’t have a national health protection agency in Australia. Such agencies exist in many other countries (for example, the US has the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the UK has Public Health England).

In Australia, responsibility for health protection lies with the states and territories. Can we afford this degree of disaggregation of responsibility? The recent episode suggests we can’t.

We need a national agency to ensure the lessons learnt in one part of Australia are available throughout the country. As a nation, we’re too small to afford the level of knowledge and expertise required to give high quality health protection in eight separate jurisdictions.

Environmental hazards don’t generally recognise borders. Having agencies whose responsibilities ends at a line on the map makes no sense in dealing with problems like this.

There are other limitations to our health protection regimen in Australia. Effective action to protect health requires integration of expertise in:

  • identifying and measuring hazards (environmental, toxicological and microbiological)
  • clinical medicine to diagnose and care for sick individuals
  • health service management (including primary and other ambulatory care, hospitals and ambulance services)
  • epidemiology, surveillance and monitoring
  • public health
  • research capacity.

A national health protection agency also needs regulatory powers. Although these all exist in Australia they are not well integrated for health protection.

The lack of national health protection agency means state and territory health departments have to do the best they can, often with very limited resources and expertise. Although no-one can guarantee the disastrous consequences of the Melbourne thunderstorm could have been prevented, a well-resourced national health protection agency would’ve given us a better chance of planning and implementing effective mitigating actions, such as those implemented around Wagga after 1997.

The Australian Health Ministers Advisory Council needs to set up, adequately resource, and empower a national health protection agency responsible for preventing or mitigating tragedies such as the Melbourne thunderstorm asthma epidemic.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Professor Guy Marks presented a special live webinar on "Thunderstorms and Asthma" 

The recent thunderstorm asthma event in Melbourne has directly affected over 2000 people and tragically resulted in 6 deaths to date. This seminar will provide insight into what causes thunderstorm asthma and treatment and management strategies to improve patient outcomes.

Watch the video here

SLEEP SYMPOSIUM: Update in Primary Care Medicine - Integrated Sleep Health

Join the Woolcock Sleep Clinicians as we consider and discuss issues commonly faced by healthcare professionals when treating at-risk patients for a range of sleep disorders. We will discuss the assessment, treatment and management of Obstructive Sleep Apnea, Obesity, Parkinson’s Disease, Sleep Walking and RBD, Maternal and Infant Sleep, Insomnia, Depression and Sleep Stress and Trauma. Come along to hear the latest research, discuss relevant case studies and identify alternative assessments and treatments that may assist your practice.

About this course: This category 1 activity has been approved by the RACGP QI&CPD Program. Total Points: 40 Category 1 points. Activity Number: 40979

When: Saturday, 26 November 2016 

Location: Woolcock Institute of Medical Research - 431 Glebe Point Road, Glebe NSW 2037  

Cost: $90. Lunch provided. 

Click here to view the full program.