Diabetes on the Go

SarahBlennerBy Sarah Blenner, JD, MPH

If you’ve travelled lately, you know the drill.  You pack your carry-on bag, making sure not to bring any liquids or gels that are in a container larger than 3.4 ounces.  You put the small containers of liquid in one plastic Ziploc bag that is easily accessible so that you can take it out quickly when going through security at the airport.  You know to bring shoes that you can easily slip on and off.  Perhaps, you even avoid wearing any metal or jewelry.

However, for someone with diabetes, extra precautions need to be taken.  Diabetes is a chronic health condition that must be managed throughout the course of the day, including in the security line.  And a person with diabetes has to be prepared at all times to deal with high and low blood glucose levels—meaning, they need to have supplies such as insulin and glucagon with them at the airport.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has guidelines protecting people with what TSA terms as hidden disabilities.  According to the TSA website, individuals with diabetes can bring diabetes-related supplies with them on the flight and through security.  If a traveler uses an insulin pump and does not want to go through the metal detector or full body scan (because of the risk that the scan could negatively affect the pump), then the traveler is permitted to notify security and get a pat down instead.

But, these procedures aren’t always followed.  Recently, sixteen-year-old Savannah Barry was heading home from a school trip.  Prepared for travel, she notified security officers that she had an insulin pump and needed a full body pat-down.  Security told her that she had to go through the full body scanner anyways, despite her request and a doctor’s note.  The result?  Savannah’s insulin pump malfunctioned.

Unfortunately, similar situations are occurring all over the U.S.  There are accounts of school officials pulling out insulin pumps from a child’s body thinking that the medical device was a banned pager.  In Nevada, a man was pulled over for suspected drunk driving and beaten by police as he suffered from a severe hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) episode.  And SFX Entertainment had a policy that the U.S. Department of Justice claimed made individuals choose between going to a concert or compromising their health and safety.  The case later settled and SFX Entertainment agreed to implement a policy that will allow concertgoers with diabetes to bring medical supplies and food into a venue.

Even if venues, airports, and institutions have good policies, it is important to train and educate security personnel, police officers, and others about diabetes so that the policies are successfully implemented.

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