Living with Food Allergies in Shanghai

Shanghai Living

Shanghai isn’t the easiest place to live for food-allergy sufferers. Certain allergens such as nuts are common, the language barrier makes determining ingredients difficult and the selection of allergen-free foods is slim.

But Pamela Pour says it can be done – with some extra work and planning. Pour has two children with serious food allergies. For her six-year-old son alone the list of forbidden foods includes peanuts, tree nuts, gluten, wheat, oats, yeast, eggs and sesame.

When the family moved to Shanghai a year and a half ago, Pour says she brought over as much allergen-free food as she could in their shipment. When those initial supplies started dwindling Pour turned, in part, to family to help keep her cupboards safely stocked. Once a month, she shops online and has everything sent to her sister back home who then ships it to Shanghai.

But she’s also found options for supplies and support locally. For one, the city’s international food stores are starting to carry allergen-free products. “I make a regular shopping trip through all the international stores,” Pour says. “Every store carries different stock so I visit each of them to pick up different foods.”

In addition to the increasing availability of allergen-free food products, parents also have
a support outlet in the Shanghai Food Allergies Support Group – a key forum for information sharing. “I found out from a group member there is gluten-free vanilla and yeast from Germany, both available here in Shanghai,” says Pour, who must do all the baking for her children.

The international group meets once a month and also goes on store tours together to search out new sources of allergen-free products.

And through their online forum parents trade allergy-safe recipes, doctor recommendations and even tips for low-risk holiday destinations (Disneyland in Tokyo has an allergy-safe restaurant).

Still, families with allergy-sufferers face some challenges unique to their Shanghai experience. For example, international grocery stores are making an effort to stock allergen-free foods, but they can’t always get specific brands customers request. And they may source products from a variety of countries which means no matter how clearly that gluten-free Japanese baby cookie is labeled it won’t be coming home if you don’t read Japanese.

Also, while the frequency of food allergies in China is comparable to that of western countries, the level of awareness of them isn’t. So that means educating ayis, drivers – and even schools – is a big part of keeping allergic kids safe.

When it comes to ayis and drivers, Pour says basic and bold is best. “Don’t just say ‘my child will get very sick’,” she says. “Say that your child will stop breathing and die.” And follow it up with strict household rules about food handling, what snacks allergic children may be given and that all other foods are completely off limits.

Providing first aid training for ayis is another precaution. The Shanghai East International Medical Center in Pudong offers two first aid courses for ayis every month. The Community Center Shanghai, with locations both in Puxi and Pudong, also offers certified first aid courses for ayis and drivers. (Check with each organization for upcoming classes and course details.)

As for international schools, some are prepared to handle children with food allergies, some are not, and some won’t even accept children with serious food allergies.

Be Prepared

Pour says the best strategy is to come prepared. For her son, she packed a backpack with a detailed protocol and necessary medications that stays at his school in case of emergency. And she says she reviews the protocol and medications with her son’s teacher, teacher assistant and the school’s ayi twice a year and doesn’t assume anyone has first aid knowledge or training.

Allergies are a serious matter, but Pour says she doesn’t forget about fun. “I asked for a list of all the children’s birthdays in my son’s class. That way, I can prepare a safe treat for him that he can eat while the other kids have birthday cake.”

As many precautions as families take, they still have to be prepared to handle an emergency. And even that step takes some extra legwork in Shanghai.

“I think the best advice I can give parents is to make no assumptions about what kind of care is available at any given time,” Pour says. “But everything changes so quickly here, even at hospitals and clinics, so I arrange tours of my preferred healthcare providers once a year.”

Allergy Safety Protocol for School

Provide as much detail as possible in the protocol, including all symptoms, how to administer medication, and where and to whom take the child in the event of exposure.

Include housekeeping requests, too, especially if allergic children are so sensitive that skin contact can bring on a serious reaction. Wiping down tables, doorknobs, chairs and faucets – especially after meals – with a damp cloth and cleaner instead of just a dry rag is a good idea.

Ask to establish a “no sharing food” rule among children in the class and inquire after hand-washing practices.

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