UPDATE: On the afternoon of April 26, a jury convicted David and Collet Stephan of failing to provide their son with the necessaries of life. The maximum penalty is five years in prison. The story is developing and we'll update it as we know more.
When their son Ezekiel was very sick, David and Collet Stephan, who live in Alberta, didn't take him to see a doctor. Instead, for two weeks they gave him smoothies of hot pepper, horseradish, ginger root and onion, and eventually brought him to a naturopath clinic, where they bought an echinacea tincture. At that point, the 18-month-old was so stiff from his illness that he couldn't sit in his car seat, and had to be transported lying on a mattress in the back of the car, as the Lethbridge court heard.
Ezekiel later stopped breathing and was rushed to hospital. A few days later, he died of meningitis.
On Monday, a jury started deliberating whether David and Collet, whose son died in 2012, are guilty of failing to provide the necessaries of life. Lots of people have already condemned Ezekiel's parents for not doing more to help him—not even after a family friend, who's also a nurse, suggested he might have meningitis. During the trial, his dad testified that he thought Ezekiel had the flu.
It isn't the first time that a parent has chosen a dangerous alternative cure for their kid, and it raises a troubling question: why are naturopaths even treating kids? It can be hard to find a family doctor in many parts of Canada, and that's surely part of it. But doing a juice cleanse when you're an adult, and can make up your own mind, is one thing. (That fancy green drink isn't really shedding toxins from your body anyway, by the way.) Parents' belief in pseudoscience is putting kids at risk.
In another case, in Calgary, a 7-year-old died after his mom used "holistic medicine" to treat him. (She's awaiting trial later this year.) Parents continue to shun vaccines, or to buy naturopathic remedies for their kids, like "nosodes." Or they take celebrities' advice over their own doctor's. People, for one, was recently forced to pull down a recipe for Kristin Cavallari's "natural" infant formula, which could have been seriously dangerous for babies.
Tim Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, has been following the case. "There are a lot of things going on in society that are making way for pseudoscience," Caulfield told Motherboard. "There's some good evidence to suggest people are fed up with the conventional system."
In Canada, it can be difficult (if not impossible) to get a family doctor: in BC, for example, the government recently had to abandon an election promise to match everyone in the province with a family doctor, because there simply aren't enough. Canada's doctor shortage is a longstanding problem, and there are all sorts of reasons behind it: an aging population that needs more medical care, younger doctors' demand for shorter working hours, and funding troubles, to name a few.
Even if a patient does have a doctor, they'll too often rush through an appointment, whereas a naturopath might sit and listen for half an hour or longer, sending the patient off with a range of (sometimes expensive) treatments and cures.
Celebrities are playing into it, as Caulfield's recent book, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, goes to show. "They spread the word about these therapies and put them in the public mind," he said. As the title of his book implies, Paltrow is a prime offender. Last year, health experts found themselves urging women not to get their vaginas "steamed" after she recommended it.
But we can point a finger at government, too.
In 2012, naturopaths in Alberta became a self-regulated profession (they're self-regulated in other parts of Canada, too) which gives them a veneer of professionalism. A lot of health experts pushed back against it. It was a compromise, given that more people were seeking them out, Caulfield said.
"If these practitioners are going to be more popular, they have to make sure there's a minimum standard," he said. "You can sympathize with that, but very quickly it becomes legitimization."
Naturopaths in Canada and beyond are treating patients who suffer from a range of conditions, including cancer. And they're treating kids. The jury will decide how much Ezekiel's parents are to blame for what happened, but even the Crown has recognized that the problem wasn't that they didn't love their son. It's that they seem to have trusted smoothies and tinctures to treat him, more than they trusted modern medicine.