Asthma attacks triggered by anxiety over the threat of COVID-19 disease are just one of several major impacts of the pandemic on people with asthma in Australia, according to a new report.
A survey by Asthma Australia has found that 44% of people with asthma have experienced new or increasing symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic, and a quarter say the stress has been triggering their asthma.
Other pandemic-related problems highlighted in the survey of more than 1800 people with asthma include shortages of essential asthma medications, inability or reluctance to access respiratory health services and high rates of self-imposed isolation.
The findings, published in a submission to a Senate inquiry into COVID-19 pandemic, show the need for improvements in pandemic response plans, and especially ensuring access to medical care and medications, says Asthma Australia.
In their report they say the COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant impact on the mental health of Australians with asthma, many of whom are fearful of contracting the virus they believe could worsen their asthma and cause further severe episodes requiring hospitalisation.
The survey found that two-thirds of respondents were concerned or very concerned about contracting COVID-19 and many feared they would have life threatening asthma attacks. Over half the respondents rated their anxiety at a level of 6 or higher on a scale of one to ten, and nearly 20% rated their anxiety levels as at 9 or 10.
Fears of contracting COVID-19 led to 67% of participants reporting they were self-isolating, and 22% said they avoided attending the emergency department, calling an ambulance or going to their doctor for asthma symptoms.
And while some had used the new temporary funded telehealth services as an alternative to access care, these were not always an option for patients who needed to be seen in person in a respiratory clinic, the Asthma Australia report notes.
“We understand many people have delayed their usual health care for fear of being exposed to COVID-19, or because care was not accessible as a result of the COVID-19 response. A National Pandemic Preparedness Plan should include measures to ensure health care remains accessible, and messaging which emphasises the importance of continued care, from the outset of the pandemic response.”
The report also highlights major ongoing shortage problems that asthma patients have encountered when trying to access reliever and preventer inhalers from pharmacies, despite being told these were ‘local issues’ from government and pharmacy groups.
The survey revealed that over a quarter of people with asthma reported that their asthma medication had been out of stock.
The shortages may have been due to panic buying ‘stockpiling’ and worsened by the previous high demand for respiratory medications during the persistent summer bushfire season, the report found.
And conversely, some people with asthma had difficulty accessing their usual medications because of new restrictions introduced by pharmacies in an attempt to curb stockpiling.
Asthma inhaler shortages were felt hardest in smaller rural and remote communities where there might be only one pharmacy and no alternative local source of supply.
Asthma Australia recommends that revised pandemic response plans contain obligations for pharmacy chains and wholesalers to maintain minimum levels of critical medicines, including essential reliever and preventer medicines for people with asthma, which should also be held in pandemic stockpiles.
“Existing pandemic response plans did not appear to anticipate increased demand for certain medications. We heard about stock outages for several asthma reliever and preventer medicines, in many locations, sometimes for weeks at a time.”
It suggests that improved pandemic responses be developed by a National Steering Committee that includes representatives from key health peak bodies including respiratory healthcare, consumers, pharmaceutical industry and the mental health sector as well as state and territory government health agencies.