Should naturopaths be restricted from treating children after tragic death of Alberta toddler?
A former naturopath says she saw colleagues treat aggressive illnesses with the same ‘immune boosting’ herb Ezekiel was given when he was dying from…
Before her creeping uneasiness with naturopathic medicine finally drove her from practice, Britt Marie Hermes says she watched colleagues deliver advice that was bad, to dangerously incompetent.
She witnessed missed diagnoses of cancer. She watched naturopaths routinely advise against childhood vaccinations and treat aggressive illnesses with the same “immune boosting” herb Ezekiel Stephan was given while the Alberta toddler was dying from meningitis.
Now, as Ezekiel’s parents stand charged in his death, ethicists and health-policy experts say the case is raising troubling questions about whether naturopaths should be restricted from treating children.
There are provincial bans on indoor tanning beds for minors, as well as bylaws keeping children under 16 out of tattoo parlours “because of possible harm to children,” notes University of Calgary bioethicist and lawyer Juliet Guichon.
“Just because medicine isn’t perfect doesn’t make naturopathy a reasonable alternative”
“There’s also the consent aspect – that children aren’t mature enough to say no to these outfits,” Guichon said.
The same principles could be applied to naturopathy, she suggested. “If (children) are not mature enough yet to say, ‘Mum, I’m not going to that quack, I need to go to a doctor,’ then there could be an argument for a legal restriction to protect children.”
Nineteen-month-old Ezekiel died in March 2012. His parents, David and Collet Stephan, who operate a nutritional supplements company, have pleaded not guilty to failing to provide their son with the necessities of life.
Court has heard that, in the days leading up to Ezekiel’s death, the couple, thinking Ezekiel had croup, treated the child with natural remedies and homemade smoothies.
After a family friend and nurse told the mother he might have meningitis – an infection that causes inflammation of the layer of tissue that covers the brain – Collet purchased an echinacea tincture called “Blast” from a Lethbridge naturopathic clinic. By then the boy was so sick and stiff he couldn’t sit in his car seat.
The naturopath has testified she was busy with a patient when Collet called ahead of her visit to the clinic, but that she told a staff member to tell the mother to take the boy immediately to hospital. She said she remained by the phone long enough to confirm the message was relayed, and that she was never asked if echinacea would be a good treatment for meningitis.
Under cross-examination, the jury heard the naturopath never told police she had stayed by the phone while the advice was passed on. A worker in her clinic also told investigators she introduced the naturopath to Collet when she arrived at the clinic, and described her as the mother of “the little one with meningitis.”
The trial is scheduled to resume April 11.
University of Alberta health-policy researcher Tim Caulfield says the tragic death is exposing the sharp and dangerous limits of naturopathic medicine.
Caulfield, who has long argued that naturopathy operates in the realm of “pseudoscience,” said he’s “sympathetic to the idea of restricting the kinds of services they can provide kids.”
“We do a lot of things to protect children and, at a minimum, I get very worried when kids are being taken there,” he said.
Alberta licenses naturopaths, as does Ontario and several other provinces, regulation Guichon said gives the field a “cloak of respectability and professionalism” it may or may not deserve.
“But the behaviour in Lethbridge suggests that they’re not professional, because a professional would have called the Director of Child Welfare and said, ‘This parent is unwilling or unable to provide the child necessary medical treatment,’ ” Guichon said.
Caulfield said naturopaths are increasingly positioning themselves as “some kind of substitute for a family physician” offering evidence-based treatments, when much of what they advertise, according to his research, has no foundation in science.
“They want to have the best of both worlds,” Caulfield said. “But if you’re going to be a science-based practitioner, you shouldn’t be providing homeopathy, you shouldn’t be providing iridology or high-dose intravenous vitamin injections.”
The College of Naturopathic Doctors of Alberta said it could not comment on matters involving an ongoing criminal trial.
In hindsight, I’m really lucky nobody got hurt
Hermes, who practiced as a licensed naturopath in the U.S. for three years before leaving to pursue a career in biomedical research, said she frequently prescribed herbs for infections she was “fairly certain were viruses.
“In hindsight, I’m really lucky nobody got hurt,” said Hermes, who wrote about Ezekiel’s case in her blog, Naturopathic Diaries.1
When parents are “naturalistic fanatics” it can be nearly impossible to convince them to go to the doctor when their child needs real medicine, she said.
“My argument is not, and never has been, that medicine is perfect,” Hermes said. “But just because medicine isn’t perfect doesn’t make naturopathy a reasonable alternative.”
Calgary pediatrician Dr. Ian Mitchell said many people, including parents of young children, have a distrust of conventional medicine “and an almost magical belief that there is some pill or preparation called ‘natural’ that will wipe things away.” But he said restricting naturopaths from seeing children would only drive things underground and discourage parents from telling doctors about natural products they might be using that could have “disastrous” interactions with other medicines.
“We want people to be open with us,” he said, which means not condemning or judging parents.
national Post, with files from The Canadian Press
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