Asthma deaths in Australia have increased by 30% in a single year, with experts saying many of those deaths were preventable.
There were 467 asthma-related deaths recorded in Australia in 2022, up from 355 deaths in 2021, Australian Bureau of Statistics data, published by the National Asthma Council Australia on Wednesday, show.
The 2022 deaths included 299 females and 168 males. NSW recorded the highest number of deaths (147), followed by Victoria (115), Queensland (88), South Australia (49) and WA (40). There were 28 deaths in total recorded in Tasmania, the ACT and the Northern Territory.
The state with the most drastic increase compared with the previous year was South Australia, with an 88% rise in deaths in 2022. Women aged above 75 were the most at risk, with 45% of deaths from this age group.
The director of National Asthma Council Australia and a respiratory physician, Prof Peter Wark, said most asthma deaths are preventable and many relate to people not having treatment on hand or using it as prescribed, especially inhaled corticosteroids.
“Commonly called a ‘preventer’, inhaled corticosteroids remain the only treatment that clearly reduce acute asthma attacks and asthma deaths for people in all asthma age groups six years and older, and should be used by the majority of people with asthma,” Wark said.
“However, less than a third of people with asthma are regularly prescribed a preventer and, of those, many fail to regularly take their preventer as prescribed by their GP. In addition, uncontrolled use of relievers or ‘puffers’ purchased over the counter without a prescription has been strongly associated with an increased risk of asthma death.”
Wark said deaths were down in 2021 as a result of pandemic public health measures such as lockdowns, which led to fewer respiratory infections and fewer asthma attacks.
However, asthma attacks have now returned to slightly higher levels than even prior to the pandemic, with 2022 marking the highest number of asthma deaths since 2017.
Wark said the rise was partly driven by the return of outbreaks of viral respiratory infections which are associated with increases in asthma hospitalisations.
Kira Hughes, a researcher with Deakin AIRwatch, where grass pollen counting and forecasting is conducted, said a range of other factors also contribute to asthma, and triggers can depend on location.
She has been examining how environmental triggers affect asthma rates across Melbourne, and has found a gradual but large increase in asthma cases since 2017 driven by pollen and fungal spores.
“There was a lot of rain that occurred, primarily from the La Niña event that happened in 2021 to 2022, so there was a lot more growth of plants and a massive amount of grass pollen in the air,” Hughes said.
“The majority of people with asthma have what’s called allergic asthma, about 80% of cases, so that means that they’re primarily triggered by allergens like pollen and fungal spores, while other people with asthma are triggered by exercise, weather changes, aerosols and pollutants like smoke.”
She urged people with asthma to talk to their doctor about an asthma plan.
“Always make sure that you have a medication and a plan on hand,” she said.