As the holiday season approaches, many families will be planning a trip overseas. For those families with a child or children that have allergies, a vacation is no simple undertaking. A huge amount of planning is required; from the airline you fly with, the accommodation you book, and what you need to pack. For Janice Chan and Jin Lu, having a child with severe allergies has not put a stop to them embracing their love of travel. Their six-year-old daughter Anna is a student at Dulwich College Beijing (DCB) and the family has lived in Beijing for the past 10 years.
“At just a few months old, it became apparent Anna had an allergy to cow’s milk,” explains Janice. When she was 2, she had a big reaction to some biscuits – she got hives, was itching, and became very sleepy. “It was scary and at that point we realized her allergies were more extensive.” Anna went through a series of tests, and was diagnosed with allergy to eggs and dairy, nuts and peanuts, seafood, garlic, orange colored fruits and vegetables, and even some meats. She has asthma and eczema and some of her food allergies are so severe as to be life threatening.
Having a child diagnosed with allergies can be an incredibly worrying process, as parents try to help their child cope with symptoms at the same time as trying to understand what is causing them. Adapting to a new lifestyle, and incorporating treatments into the daily routine, is a challenge for parents, the child, and other family members. Over time, the treatments and routines that are needed will become second nature and part of everyday life, but there’s no denying that managing allergies is an ongoing endeavor.
This photo was taken during a family trip to Denmark this summer. Laid out is a traditional Danish platter which Anna couldn’t eat a single bite of. The restaurant couldn’t provide an allergy free meal, so instead she ate a homemade lunch. In fact, Anna has never eaten restaurant food. “As her parents, we of course feel guilty when we are enjoying food that Anna is unable to eat,” explains Janice. On vacation mom and dad will enjoy the local cuisine, but at home they have changed their diets drastically and now eat pretty much the same meals as Anna. “We don’t want to make her feel different, and it’s easier to be eating the same things. We have a great range of recipes that we have had to learn along the way!” laughs Jin.
Part of growing up is experiencing new things, and holidays and trips away from home are a part of that. Having a child with allergies means there’s more to consider when planning a trip. The family always stays in serviced apartments, with kitchen facilities so they can prepare Anna’s meals. They bring more than enough food and snacks for the entire holiday. In some countries, suitable foods can be found in local supermarkets, but across Asia it’s difficult. “You can’t be certain the labelling is correct, which is a problem here in Beijing too,” says Janice.
Anna’s allergies are so severe they must check with airlines on their allergy policy. An airline that still serves nuts is a huge no-no because it’s dangerous for Anna to even touch nuts. Even if airlines have a no-nuts policy, previous passengers could have brought along their own, so her seat must be cleaned thoroughly to get rid of food residue. Mom also brings along a blanket to cover Anna’s seat. “We always pack a lot of stuff! Enough food and medication for the whole trip, and enough of each packed into separate cases. Twice before we’ve had a suitcase go missing!” says Janice.
Starting school, whether primary or secondary, can be a daunting experience for anyone (both parents and children) but, if you have an allergy, it is essential to be confident that this will be managed effectively. DCB is one of the few schools that were so positive and willing to work with the parents, and to take on the challenge despite its severity. The school works closely with Anna’s parents to ensure that her school environment is safe, enabling her to participate in classes and activities alongside her peers. “The teachers are very proactive. If there are cooking classes at school, they will check with us what she can and can’t do, ingredients she can’t touch etc. Communication is vital and it works incredibly well at DCB,” says Janice.
DCB has processes in place to minimize risk to children with food allergy. A no-nut policy, which means parents are told not to include nut-based or foods made from nuts or peanuts in children’s packed lunches or at any bake sales. Plus a no food-sharing policy means that all children, not just those with allergy, only eat their own food. Anna takes in a home lunch every day, which makes a lot of other kids envious! Processed foods are a definite no, and most of Anna’s snacks are imported from the UK, Australia, or purchased in Hong Kong. The school is equipped with a management plan for Anna, which details the procedures to be followed for her daily schooling and in an emergency. All staff is aware of the potential allergens for Anna, both inside and outside the classroom.
Educating Other Children (and parents)
For a child with allergy Birthday parties, play dates and after school activities can be tricky, but are an important part of their social and educational development. Helping children with allergy to become as involved as other children in activities takes a bit of planning and communication, but reaps rewards. “We feel it’s important that allergies are explained to Anna’s friends, other children, and their parents. This will help them to understand her allergies, accept her, and not treat her any differently,” says Janice.
Explaining to other children about your child’s allergies could be done by the child and teacher, or parents find it useful to go and talk to the class. Children are naturally inquisitive and will want to know why a child has to avoid certain things, so it is easier to be open and discuss any issues that the children should be aware of. As children get older, their friends will be able to offer a great deal of support to them, so it’s important they understand. Informing and talking to parents of the children your child socializes with, can help them to become allergy-aware too.
Mom and dad are all too aware of the importance for Anna to understand what are allergies are, so that she can look after herself as she gets older. Over time most children cope very well with their allergies and learn to adapt and accommodate the treatments into their lives. The key is for parents and children to stay positive and to build their confidence. If a child has a food allergy, it is important they know what it is they are allergic to and have the confidence to tell other people what they are allergic to. By teaching your child to identify the potential triggers and how to manage symptoms you can help them in the long term to take control of their allergy.
There is treatment available in some countries, called Oral Food Challenges. It involves gradually exposing children to tiny amounts of foods, that they are known to be allergic to, in a controlled environment. The idea is that repeated and gradual exposure will enable some children to overcome the allergy. For some children, the treatment has been a success, but every child reacts differently so it’s still quite a controversial treatment. It’s a huge daily commitment and there are no guarantees, but it’s something the family is considering exploring when Anna is older.
Having an allergy means that extra care needs to be taken, but it doesn’t mean missing out on a childhood. “We want Anna to enjoy as normal a life as possible and allow her to be safe and grow with confidence,” says Jin. The family admits it would be easier at times to just stay home, and not visit different corners of the world. “It takes a lot of planning and effort, but travel is so important for Anna’s development and for us. We would never deny the pleasure of seeing and experiencing new countries and cultures.”
I asked whether they had ever considered leaving Beijing, and moving to a country where awareness of allergies is more developed and where things would be…easier. “It might be easier to find the snacks she likes, to communicate with restaurants about her food needs, and to make people understand about her allergies,” says Jin. “But Anna will still have those allergies wherever we live. It is what it is. It’s a part of how we live every day.”
FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education) www.foodallergy.org. With comprehensive information about food allergy and how to manage it, plus toolkits and regular webinars by medical professionals that you can join in for free
www.kidswithfoodallergies.org/page/welcome.aspx provides suggestions on recipes and diet, updated news on food allergy alerts, and an online support group for parents with allergy kids.
beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent Sally Wilson moved to Beijing in 2010 from the UK with her husband and son. Her daughter was born here in 2011 and both her kids keep her happily busy. In her spare time, Sally loves to stroll through Beijing’s hutongs and parks. She is a (most of the time) keen runner and loves reading: books, magazines, news, and celeb websites – anything really. Sally is also a bit of a foodie and loves trying out new restaurants.
Photos: Courtesy of Janice Chan, Shutterstock