There was no happy ending to be had in this tragic case, but it seems the right decision was rendered yesterday:
A Lethbridge jury has found a couple guilty in the death of their son back in 2012. David and Collet Stephan were convicted of failing to provide him with the necessaries of life. 19-month-old Ezekiel died in March 2012 of bacterial meningitis. The couple testified that they believed their son had croup or flu, so they treated him for 2 1/2 weeks with home remedies. He eventually stopped breathing and died after being rushed to hospital.
Crown prosecutor Lisa Weich says, “What we hope that the public and community takes away from this trial and the verdict in this trial is that all parents are held to a minimum standard of care that all children should expect at all times.” Weich adds, “They definitely, definitely loved their son, but as stated in our closing arguments and even in our opening arguments, unfortunately, love just sometimes isn’t enough. Parents still have to follow the standard of care that is set by the criminal law.”
Clearly young Ezekiel needed medical attention, and the jury concluded that the Stephans failed in their legal duty to ensure he received that. But the parents did seek outside input – unfortunately, that was from a naturopath:
“They called their naturopath in Lethbridge to ask for recommendations for treating viral meningitis and were advised to start him on something called BLAST,” the report states.
The next day, March 13, the family drove to Lethbridge to run some errands which included picking up the BLAST from their naturopath.
“Ezekiel seemed a bit more alert that morning but he was too stiff to be successfully placed in his car seat so his crib mattress was put in the back of the car and he laid on that for the drive,” the report reads.
“They picked up the BLAST and started Ezekiel on that and then drove back home.”
After a nap at home and more fluids, Ezekiel seemed more alert but still lethargic.
Abnormal breathing and 911 call
After another nap, Ezekiel woke up about 8:30 p.m., when Collet noticed he had “abnormal breathing where he seemed to be gasping and struggling” to draw breath, followed by pauses in his breathing that lasted for a few seconds.
The bigger question we need to ask is whether the government has inadvertently sent the message that seeking medical advice or treatment from a naturopath is a legitimate choice for a patient or the parent of a patient to make. As I wrote recently:
The question of whether the Alberta government, by regulating naturopathy, was lending credence to a rather questionable form of alternative medicine was already being asked in 2012. In light of what we’ve subsequently learned about Ezekiel’s case, and the broader practice of naturopathy, there’s a clear need for the new government to look at whether we’re undermining our health-care system and potentially putting people — especially children — at risk.
It is up to the court to determine if there is criminal culpability on the part of the parents, and it is also the case that the naturopath is not charged with anything. But perhaps some questions ought to be asked about why a supposed health professional would suggest echinacea as a treatment for an illness that turned out to be meningitis.
Have we inadvertently sent the message that naturopaths should be sought out and that their advice should be heeded?
When the regulations were announced in 2012, the health minister at the time announced that Albertans would be “receiving safe, effective services from qualified professionals” — not exactly a red flag.
We need to rely on evidence-based medicine, and the province has a duty to discourage beliefs and treatments that go against that.
The current government inherited this status quo, but an unwillingness to review the impact of that status quo now falls squarely on it shoulders. If a mistake was made four years ago, then fixing that mistake can’t happen fast enough.
There’s a strong case to be made that naturopaths should not be allowed to treat children. But, as Timothy Caulfield explains, there’s the broader issue of the responsibility the government bears for ensuring that people are making health decisions based on real evidence:
This stuff doesn’t work: Most of the therapies provided by naturopaths have little good scientific evidence to support their use. Our 2011 study of naturopathy websites found that the most commonly advertised services included pseudoscientific nonsense like homeopathy, detoxification, hydrotherapy and IV vitamin therapy. By any standard based on the foundations of science, all of these services – and many of the other practices of naturopaths – are complete bunk with no benefit beyond the placebo effect. Of course, naturopathy is not based on science, but on the supernatural concept of the “healing power of nature.”
Let’s be honest about the science and avoid false claims of efficacy: The provincial government should monitor the claims made by naturopathic clinics. For example, if a clinic is marketing that IV Therapy can treat cancer, cardiovascular disease, and allergies, the government should ask for solid scientific evidence to support the claims (note: there isn’t any). If the evidence is not produced, the misleading advertising should not be allowed.
If the practice is really science-based, then make it science-based: If naturopathy is science-based and if it is going to remain a regulated profession, than the College must stop its members from providing services that aren’t science-based. But, of course, the College of Naturopaths can’t do that. They’d have almost no services left to sell.
We spoke with Dr. Caulfield on today’s show:
More on the case and related issues here, here and here. We’ve learned that the naturopath in this case is under investigation (perhaps as a result of this letter), so it will be worth watching to see what comes of all this. Hopefully Alberta Health will address the matter – the status quo is clearly not working.