The parents of a toddler who died in 2012 of meningitis are on trial for giving their sick son home remedies instead of seeking medical help. David and Collet Stephan of Alberta, Canada, are accused of failing to provide medical care for their 19-month-old son Ezekiel.
The court heard testimony earlier this week that the parents treated the boy with home remedies such as olive leaf extract and whey protein, according to the CBC, in an effort to boost their son's immune system during the illness.
Eventually a nurse told the couple that Ezekiel likely had viral meningitis and that he should see a doctor immediately. The parents instead took their son to the nearby city of Lethbridge to visit a naturopathic alternative medicine practitioner. They increased the number of holistic and natural remedies they were giving the child, saying that if he didn't get better they would take him to the hospital. Sadly, they didn't get the chance; the toddler stopped breathing the next day, and only then did the Stephans seek medical help.
Ezekiel Stephan did indeed have viral meningitis, which began as an untreated lung infection and got progressively worse. The boy died five days after being admitted to Alberta Children's Hospital.
Illusions of Improvement Why didn't the Stephans seek medical attention sooner? One reason is that, according to statements they made to police, Ezekiel seemed to be responding well to some of their treatments. Psychology, however, offers an explanation for why the parents may have made this fatal mistake.
The perceived improvement in their son following the various treatments was an illusion. It is what statisticians call "regression to the mean," in which two variables - in this case, ingredients given to the child and the child's health - appear to be correlated but are not. People tend to seek (and parents tend to provide) treatment when the symptoms are at their worst. But just because symptoms subside soon after a substance is ingested doesn't necessarily mean that it helped.
Why? Because the severity of symptoms may come and go on their own with or without any treatment. During any prolonged sickness some days will be better than others, even if the condition is getting progressively worse.
A toddler, of course, cannot give feedback on how he or she is feeling and the parents had to rely on their own subjective interpretation of his behavior. Since the Stephans believed-and wanted to believe-that they were helping him, they had a strong emotional and cognitive bias in interpreting any calming as signs of his recovery.
Ironically the eclectic nature of the treatments they gave him may have sealed his fate: Even if one or more of the home remedies were helping him, there would be no way to know which ones worked, and whether some of the ingredients may have had dangerous side effects or even counteracted the benefits of the others. This is why drug researchers work to isolate and identify active ingredients in medications: to determine which substances work and in what effective doses.
Some parents offer religious reasons for denying health care to their children. Several religions, including Followers of Christ Church, Christian Scientists, and Scientology, have doctrines that prohibit or discourage modern medicine and therapeutic interventions. The Stephans, however, offered no religious defense but instead "told police that they prefer naturopathic remedies because their family has had negative experiences with the medical system," according to the National Post.
Many alternative medicines, including supplements and naturopathic treatments, are not regulated by regulatory authorities such as the Food and Drug Administration or Health Canada, and have not been tested for safety or efficacy. The Stephans own and manage a nutritional supplements company which continues to market "natural" remedies for illnesses. The trial is expected to continue until March 24.