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After this toddler’s tragic death, should kids see naturopaths?

When do your counter-culture personal beliefs about health and wellness infringe on your child’s right to basic health care? The legal position on that question has become a little more clear for Canadians, as an Alberta jury just found parents David and Collet Stephan guilty of failing to provide their child with the “necessaries of life.” Their son Ezekiel died tragically of meningitis in 2012 after they attempted to heal him with homeopathic remedies.

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When Ezekiel began showing symptoms, developing a fever and runny nose, his parents began treating him with various natural treatments they found online. They tried smoothie concoctions with ingredients like horseradish, ginger root and apple cider vinegar. As symptoms persisted, Collet’s friend and birth attendant — who is a registered nurse — suggested that the child could have meningitis. But rather than take him to see a doctor, the parents took Ezekiel to see a naturopath. His body was so stiff at this point that they had to lay him on a mattress in the back of their car to get him there. After failed natural treatments at home, Ezekiel stopped breathing. When the couple dialed 911 to get their son to a hospital, it was too late.

“He was blue by the time we met up with the ambulance,” Collet told police.

The Stephans’ court case raises important concerns: When are parents risking a child’s life by putting their faith in naturopathy? If you choose to incorporate naturopathy in your life, here’s what you need to be aware of:

  • A visit to a naturopath should complement — not replace — regular visits to a medical doctor. “Alternative practitioners shouldn’t be your go-to primary care physician,” Tim Caulfield, the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, told Vice’s Motherboard.
  • Beware of claims that aren’t backed by science. For instance, naturopathic doctors sometimes make claims to be able to “detox” the organs from heavy metals and toxins which scientific research has proven is a myth.
  • Whatever you do, don’t fall for nonsense about “homeopathic vaccine alternatives.” The Canadian Pediatric Society warns consumers against the dangerous trend of using what are called “nosodes” — preparations made from diluted bacteria or viruses, which can come from sterilized feces or pus, as vaccine alternatives. It’s not just gross — it’s a huge public safety concern as fringe groups of parents are failing to properly vaccinate their children, making them vulnerable to preventable diseases.
  • There are times when you absolutely need to call a medical doctor — not a naturopath. Dr. Kathryn Emery, an ER physician at the Children’s Hospital at the University of Colorado, tells Parenting Magazine that parents need to call the doctor when a child has the following: a persistent fever; abdominal pain that could signal appendix issues; lingering swelling after a fall; “unexplained poor food intake with fever for two days or decreased urine for one day (or both)”; difficulty swallowing; a headache that presents with vomiting or fever; and alarming rashes you can’t explain. Ultimately, she stresses: “Trust your gut and call.”

Following Ezekiel’s death, there have been heated debates about whether it’s even ethical to take your child to see a naturopath in the first place. Juliet Guichon, a University of Calgary bioethicist and lawyer, doesn’t think it is. Guichon tells the National Post that because children can’t consent to seeing naturopaths, it’s unethical to push your beliefs in naturopathy on children. “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,” she explains.

That being said, many people have found naturopaths to be an excellent resource when it comes to helping you manage chronic conditions that they haven’t had luck treating with conventional medicine, such as anxiety or IBS. There are relatively harmless naturopathic treatments you can embrace, such as aromatherapy or the use of probiotics to complement your child’s health care plan if you choose to embrace elements of naturopathy — just make sure you don’t cut conventional doctors out of the equation.

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