An interview with a family who have learnt to cope when flying with allergies
Family travel can be challenging at the best of times, but spare a thought for those families travelling with severe allergy sufferers. The dust from a single peanut can cause anaphylactic shock which even if appropriate first aid is given immediately can lead to death. Not an ideal scenario at 30,000 feet.
The reality is some 1-2% of the Westernized population suffers from some sort of nut allergy (1). It might seem strange that something so innocuous could be so dangerous, but one little nut, or even particle of nut dust really can stand in the way of adventure ahead. Globetrotters caught up with Rachel & Ashley whose son William is a nut allergy sufferer to find out more about this deadly problem, and what fellow travellers can do to show an appreciation and help out those flying with allergies.
When did you find out about William’s allergy?
It was after his first birthday party, he was given a small amount of peanut butter on toast. Immediate we saw swelling and he started vomiting, his tongue began to swell and his airwaves were compromised. Not knowing the severity at the time we took him to an out of hours clinic and they gave him a triple dose of antihistamine, but in retrospect, we should have gone straight to A&E for an adrenaline shot.
After this, we started clearing out the cupboard (and learning a lot of Latin!). He was tested as severely allergic to peanuts, and we also found he had an egg allergy. We were given EpiPens (doses of adrenaline) and all of us had to learn how to use them. If an Epi shot is ever given, you then need to go straight to A&E, preferably within 10 minutes or the adrenaline can then cause heart problems.
What day-to-day precautions do you take?
William wears a bright red medi-alert band on his wrist; it’s funny the other kids are actually jealous of him! The teacher in his class keeps an EpiPen, as well as the school nurse and of course we both keep two with us at all times. He attends a school with a nut-free policy.
The harder part is determining what is in every day products. There are so many products you wouldn’t think contain traces of nut or share process lines so you simply have to check the labels on everything – great in a country where food and packaging laws are quite strict like the UK but in the UAE where we live there are no packaging laws, so even if the product is imported it might not have a warning on it.
That said some of the big supermarket chains, like Tesco go too far and put warnings on just about every product that it ‘may have come in contact with traces of nuts’ – you then have to do your own research to determine the risk. As a result we do not dine out and eat only home prepared food.
We have two daughters as well and all of us need to be careful what we touch when we are out and about; we cannot bring home any traces of nut on our skin – things like moisturizers and hand creams can be hidden traps. Even barbeque briquettes! It’s incredibly hard when it comes to things like birthday parties but they all understand the risk.
So how do you go about planning family holidays? What precautionary steps do you need to take?
Generally, we will only do road trips, but as expats we occasionally do need to fly to see our friends and family. Despite working for an airline, we can’t take advantage of the discounted flights on offer as we simply can’t fly standby.
The airline is always informed well in advance when we book. They are supposed to do a deep clean of the aircraft before us. We always take the extra precaution of pre-boarding and personally wiping down all seats, tray tables and remotes with antiseptic wipes before we are seated as well. Those airlines taking the utmost precaution will set up a buffer zone which consists of three vacant rows before and after an allergy sufferer.
We plan our routes very carefully. Travelling to Europe is much easier as you are over land for the majority of the trip, but our trip to Australia was much more intense, you need to think if there is an emergency landing how far from land and an airport are we. We also try to plan night flights as there is less need to eat overnight (us and other passengers).
Before the flight I try to speak with the catering staff so they understand and can make adjustments to the menu for other passengers. We will never eat the meals they serve on the plane as airline catering facilities cannot separate processing lines so you cannot guarantee anything they serve is completely nut-free.
When boarding we always take a doctors letter with us explaining he has a life threatening allergy, there is no threat to other passengers but he must take the EpiPens with him. We have never had a problem with these being accepted.
How have your previous flying experiences been?
The only long haul trip we have made is to Australia. Qantas were excellent. They made an announcement at the start, we were seated with another allergy family and they set up the appropriate buffer zone. Our experience with Virgin Blue (now Virgin Australia) was less successful, despite ringing beforehand none of the cabin crew had been informed and there were still nut products on the aircraft, they had not made any special arrangements for us.
What more can other passengers do to help allergy sufferers?
There is still not enough understanding of the severity. Schools have caught on and understand the risks associated with anaphylaxis, but on planes, the threat is amplified because of the enclosed space, air circulation and distance to medical help.
William is an intelligent boy, he knows how to look after himself but it just takes a little respect and understanding from others. A few hours without a nut is not going to ruin your holiday but it could very quickly end his. You can stop the airline themselves from having products on the plane but unfortunately there’s no way to stop other passengers from buying these items in a shop before boarding. We can only appeal to their humanity and ask if you do have a nut product in your hand luggage, simply don’t open it during the flight.
I’ve seen there is a recent UK campaign to have nuts on airplanes banned all together, what would this mean for your family?
Other than relying on an airlines policies and appealing to other passengers to help, there is still a huge risk in flying. There are still a lot of airline crew that need to be properly trained in this area, they can forget the little things or not consider consequences. Anaphylaxis has now been recognized as a disability in the USA so airlines cannot deny a passenger from boarding and must make the necessary steps for them to travel safely; this unfortunately is not the case in all countries and the airlines will say it is a personal risk for you to fly (an argument that has been successfully challenged in Canada).
It can cost $30,000-$50,000 USD to divert an aircraft, as supposed to making a small change to menus and excluding nuts which really costs them nothing; it seems common sense. Just like banning people from smoking on planes, people may not like the change at first but it’s a health and safety issue.
If you’d like to read more on the campaign, come take a look here. Thanks to Rachel & Ashley for sharing their story and highlighting the issues that allergy sufferers must endure if they wish to travel by air. I for one have signed the petition and hope if you agree you can spare one minute to help out too. I hope one day William will feel safe to freely explore the world.
Do you have any nut allergy sufferers in your family? Have you been able to continue your travelling adventures?
See more family travel health matters
(1) Source: Medicinenet.com
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