Australian airport security and diabetes

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Australian airports seem to have become a battleground recently for travellers with diabetes. My own experiences since Australia opened back up to travel have been appalling and each week there are reports in online diabetes pages about some pretty horrendous experiences. Specifically, the problems are to do with full body scanners which have been rolled out across international security checkpoints nationally, and some domestic checkpoints. 

This year alone in half a dozen international flights out of Melbourne Airports and a dozen or so domestic flights, all been much more difficult than any travel experience pre-COVID. I documented one particularly brutal encounter at Brisbane Airport last year in this Twitter thread. Sadly, since then, other instances have been just as awful. 

It seems that the training modules for security staff have incorrect information about which scanning devices are safe for diabetes devices. In my experience, the messaging is consistent: staff have been told that the metal detectors (the older walk-through screeners) are unsafe while the newer full body scanners (the stand still and be scanned) are safe. This is at odds with information from device companies and health professionals and has resulted in a number of people reporting clashes at security checkpoints. 

There’s so much discussion about this, as well as lots of confusion and some pretty dire misinformation across OzDOC socials, some of it coming from diabetes groups. Let me try to break this down with information that is based on advice from device companies and the Department of Home Affairs. This is what I have used to try to help me streamline my own travel experiences – with varying levels of success. 

Firstly, let’s start with the Department of Home Affairs. This page has the information you need, but specifically, under the section Travellers who have a mobility aid, prosthetic, medical device or medical equipment is this: ‘If you have a medical device or medical equipment, it may streamline the screening process if you have a letter or medical identification card from your doctor or healthcare professional that describes the device or equipment. It is also recommended that you talk with your doctor, healthcare professional or check the manufacturer instructions for guidance on whether the medical device or equipment is suitable for screening by body scanner technology or X-ray technology, and if not, make the screening officer aware of any restrictions before beginning the screening process.’

Device companies all have their own advice, so familiarise yourself with what their recommendations. I wear a Dexcom, and carry a printed copy of security screening advice. At the end of this post you’ll find links and relevant information about the different devices available in Australia.  

Knowing how tricky things are likely to be, I am super prepared for security checks now. I carry a letter from my endocrinologist that states I’m wearing diabetes devices that must not go through the full body scanner, and that my pump cannot be removed (not so relevant these days as I wear Omnipod). In a sign of just how much the times have changed, I now need to show that letter about 80% of the time at Australian airports. Pre-COVID I maybe needed to produce it twice in hundreds of journeys.

I always remain calm and clear about what I need: ‘I am wearing medical devices and cannot go through the fully body scanner. I can go through the metal detector, or I need a pat down. I’m happy to wait out of your way.’ I stand firm with this request, remaining polite and calm even when there is increasingly aggressive pushback. In most cases, security staff will tell me that the training says body scanners are safe and metal detectors are not. At this point, I offer the letter from my doctor and the printed out advice from Dexcom and mention the relevant information from the Department of Home Affairs. If there continues to be pushback, I’ll ask to speak with a supervisor. I truly hate doing this.

While this isn’t applicable to me now, at no point ever would I remove my insulin pump and hand it to security staff for inspection. Disappointingly, some of the device companies’ travel advice (and today I saw advice from a diabetes centre) suggests this. Don’t do it. I am happy for them to swab it while I hold it, but I won’t disconnect and hand it over. Items go missing and handed to the wrong person or could be damaged at busy security checkpoints. 

I know others with diabetes are happy to go through whatever scanner they are directed to and have had no adverse issues and that’s great. But this isn’t about individual experiences so much as about how to manage situations according to manufacturers’ advice and knowing what official information from the relevant Government department is. It’s also about being treated respectfully and having our own lived experience and knowledge respected by security staff; something that sadly seems to be repeatedly forgotten. 

If you’ve had a lousy experience and have the emotional labour to write a complaint to the airport, please do so. There are online forms you can use. 

It would be really great if this additional work didn’t fall to people with diabetes. Device companies could step up here and provide cards to use at security checkpoints, similar to those that have been developed for people with pacemakers and knee and hip replacements. Simultaneously it would be great if there was a form that could be personalised and printed out or a card issued via the NDSS when people register for pump and/or CGM access (this wouldn’t serve people who are self-funding, but it would reach the majority of Australians affected). While I am sure that there are efforts underway to address it, there’s no time to wait and a temporary fix is needed immediately. And any other advocacy groups who are addressing this issue can make sure that the advice they are providing on behalf of their diabetes community is accurate and best serves the needs of people with diabetes.

A photo of the Melbourne sign in the departures hall of Melbourne Airport.
The departures hall at Melbourne Airport (before heading to the nightmare that is security screening)

Advice from device companies in Australia

AMSL has this advice for Dexcom users: ‘Use of AIT body scanners has not been studied and therefore Dexcom recommend hand-wanding or full- body pat down and visual inspection in those situations.’ 

Insulet Australia has this advice for Omnipod users‘The Omnipod DASH® PDM and Pods are safe to go through the x-ray machine and the Pods are safe to be worn through airport scanners.’

AMSL has this advice for Tandem T:Slim users: ‘your Tandem Diabetes Care insulin pump should NOT be put through machines that use X-rays, including airline luggage X-ray machines and full-body scanners. 

Medtronic has this advice: ‘Your pump should not go through the x-ray machine that is used for carry on or checked luggage or the full body scanner.’

Abbott has this information for FreeStyle Libre wearers‘The FreeStyle Libre reader and the FreeStyle Libre sensor can be exposed to common electrostatic (ESD) and electromagnetic interference (EMI), including airport metal detectors. You can keep your FreeStyle Libre sensor on while going through these. However, the FreeStyle Libre reader and the FreeStyle Libre sensor should not be exposed to some airport full body scanners.’

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