A mom and dad are in serious trouble after choosing to treat their son's meningitis with a mix of homeopathic treatments like whey protein, maple syrup and olive leaf extract instead of allowing him to be seen by a doctor, something investigators believe led to the toddler's death. Now they face a potential stint in prison as well as the loss of their other children.
David and Collet Stephan are well-known for their strict stance against any and all things modern medicine — they've butted heads with Canadian authorities before over Truehope Nutritional Support, Inc., their company and website, where they peddle so-called homeopathic remedies purporting to cure everything from fatigue to bipolar disorder. It's this hard line on scientific treatments that aligns them with the anti-vaccination crowd in what is sometimes recklessly referred to as a "debate."
This stance is also the reason their 19-month-old son Ezekiel was unvaccinated against common diseases that cause viral meningitis like mumps, influenza and measles and is, prosecutors are arguing, responsible for his death when combined with the Stephans' refusal to seek care from a medical professional when their son's condition deteriorated.
For two weeks after a "friend" advised them that their son had meningitis, the Stephans told police, their son became sicker and more lethargic despite their attempts to treat him with olive leaf extract, water and frozen berries, whey protein and maple syrup. When it became clear that was not working, they allegedly switched to a regimen of apple cider vinegar, hot peppers, horseradish, onion, garlic and ginger. Neither home remedy would prove to be effective against the toddler's meningitis, and when he finally stopped breathing, he was airlifted to a hospital, where he remained on life support for five days before finally passing away.
It's a heartbreaking story that ends in a senseless tragedy. The Stephans readily admit this, but they maintain they did nothing wrong except for not seeking medical help earlier and instead claim that the government is using them to further the "cause" of vaccination.
And that might just be the most heartbreaking part of all — they have lost a son, which is a heartbreak so few of us can imagine. But at the core of that loss is an insistence not that they hold responsibility for his preventable death, but that they face persecution for their beliefs and not prosecution for their undeniable role in that tragedy.
When the meninges, which is the fluid around the spinal cord and brain, become infected, the cumulative results vary from stiffness to pain, to vomiting, to death. The infection is caused three ways: by viruses associated with common illnesses like the flu and uncommon illnesses like measles, via a rare fungal or parasitic infection and, most seriously, through a bacterial infection.
Symptoms of each case of meningitis include fever, nausea, vomiting, a heightened sensitivity to light, lethargy, confusion and loss of appetite. It can look like the flu, but if your child exhibits these symptoms, it's important to have them checked out by a doctor, particularly if they come on rapidly, which points to bacterial meningitis.
Each case of meningitis is very serious, though bacterial meningitis is arguably the most serious of all and more likely to result in death or permanent injury to the brain. Each case of meningitis requires a different treatment depending on how it originates, and it is therefore extremely important to see a doctor when you suspect your child might have it — the surest way to determine a course of treatment is through a lab test that will tell you whether a nasty strain of bacteria or a virus is responsible.
A course of antibiotics begun immediately for bacterial meningitis can cut the very high rate of morbidity down to a still very high incidence of under 15 percent. With viral meningitis, cases usually do clear on their own after seven to 10 days, though viral meningitis should always be monitored by a health professional. Anything longer than that, particularly for very young, very old and immunocompromised patients points to a very serious problem.
Ezekiel suffered for 14 days. He died after 19 days.
You could — and some people do — argue about vaccinations and what they do and do not cause until you're blue in the face, but it's been shown over and over again that once someone has made up their mind on the topic, even evidence to the contrary will only cause them to dig in their heels.
Once a person has fought and won against the government to keep a website that sells little more than snake oil to the public for disorders and diseases that can be fatal without actual treatment (depression, for instance), as the Stephans did in 2004, you can be sure they won't be heading to the pediatrician's office anytime soon.
After that, the only question that matters is this: The things that terrify you about modern medicine — the ableist debate about the disproved potential for "losing" your child to autism, for instance — are they more or less terrifying than losing your child for good?
Think hard. You might have to answer it one day.
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