Journal scan

Airport security rules pose risk for users of insulin pumps

Problems going through airport security for people with Type 1 diabetes who use insulin pump therapy (IPT) show that airports worldwide need a standardised policy.

Problems going through airport security for people with type 1 diabetes who use insulin pump therapy (IPT) show that airports worldwide need a standardised policy, says Katie McGhee, child health nursing lecturer at the University of East Anglia.

Advances in insulin pump therapy treatments need to be matched by a
standardised policy adopted internationally, study finds. Picture: iStock

‘The risk of increased stress for people with IPT at airport security and the potential for a subsequent life-threatening emergency requires urgent airport authority attention,’ she says in an article in the journal International Airport Review.

The pumps should not be exposed to total body scanners or X-rays as they can damage the electronics and cause malfunctions, affecting insulin delivery.

International Airport Review earlier printed an open letter from Rachel Humphrey, of Waterlooville, Hampshire, describing how she and her husband and their diabetic 14-year-old son were held in a police room for two hours at Dubai International Airport last June after they declined to disconnect his pump or allow it to be X-rayed. Previously they had been allowed through security with a wand inspection.

‘The insulin pump must be constantly attached and disconnection causes blood sugars to rise and hyperglycaemia or ketoacidosis can rapidly develop. This can then quickly become a life-threatening emergency which can develop faster in children,’ Ms Humphrey said in her letter, addressed to the airport.

The incident highlights the need for airport authorities to understand the risks to a diabetic of having to remove their insulin pump to undergo X-rays or being subjected to an X-ray while wearing the pump, says Ms McGhee.

She says there is debate on whether the traveller should detach the pump and visually show it to airport security personnel or wait to be questioned if it sets off an alarm when they pass through the metal detectors.

It is becoming common for IPT users to ask for a physical search or pat down as airport security measures become ever more stringent, though many travellers reject pat downs as too intrusive.

Type 1 diabetes, which affects 400,000 people in the UK, is a serious long-term condition resulting from the auto-immune system destroying the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas, says Ms McGhee.

IPT involves the continuous delivery of insulin from a pump through a thin tube placed under the skin, usually in the lower abdomen. The pump allows flexibility, in that the user can easily administer insulin as and when required, without the burden of insulin injections, for example during changes to eating patterns or at times of stress or increased activity. IPT helps people to manage their diabetes effectively by matching their insulin to their needs, keeping their blood glucose levels under control.

Advances in treatment technology and diabetes healthcare have meant that IPT is now being used more frequently. It has gained widespread acceptance as an effective and safe means of insulin delivery in the UK in the past decade and there is a national drive to widen its uptake to match that of other Western nations. IPT reduces risk of both acute and long-term diabetes complications and prolongs life expectancy, compared with non-pump users.

The journal said Ms Humphrey’s complaint drew a response from the executive vice president of operations at Dubai Airport in which he said he had spoken to security and medical officials at the airport and they would reinforce procedures with staff. 

McGhee K (2017) Diabetes and air travel: Ensuring security, promoting dignity. International Airport Review. 10 February 2017.

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