David and Collet Stephan have a beautiful family. On that, at least, there is little debate. In the many photos they have posted online, the devout couple’s children are blond and brightly smiling and often dressed in matching outfits. Collet is pretty with a graceful posture and almond-shaped eyes. David is tall and handsome with a mane and a beard, like a classical painting of Jesus Christ.
The Canadian Rockies surrounding their home in rural Alberta complete the picturesque family portraits.
In the comments under their photos, however, there are hints that something is amiss.
“They are a poor excuse as parents.”
There may be little doubt about the Stephan family’s good looks, but there is a major debate over their beliefs.
Health news in pictures
Health news in pictures
1/19 Vaping backed as healthier nicotine alternative to cigarettes after latest study
Vaping has been given an emphatic thumbs up by health experts after the first long-term study of its effects in ex-smokers. After six months, people who switched from real to e-cigarettes had far fewer toxins and cancer-causing substances in their bodies than continual smokers, scientists found
2/19 Common method of cooking rice can leave traces of arsenic in food, scientists warn
Millions of people are putting themselves at risk by cooking their rice incorrectly, scientists have warned. Recent experiments show a common method of cooking rice — simply boiling it in a pan until the water has steamed out — can expose those who eat it to traces of the poison arsenic, which contaminates rice while it is growing as a result of industrial toxins and pesticides
3/19 Contraceptive gel that creates ‘reversible vasectomy’ shown to be effective in monkeys
An injectable contraceptive gel that acts as a ‘reversible vasectomy’ is a step closer to being offered to men following successful trials on monkeys. Vasalgel is injected into the vas deferens, the small duct between the testicles and the urethra. It has so far been found to prevent 100 per cent of conceptions
4/19 Shift work and heavy lifting may reduce women’s fertility, study finds
Women who work at night or do irregular shifts may experience a decline in fertility, a new study has found. Shift and night workers had fewer eggs capable of developing into healthy embryos than those who work regular daytime hours, according to researchers at Harvard University
5/19 Breakfast cereals targeted at children contain 'steadily high' sugar levels since 1992 despite producer claims
A major pressure group has issued a fresh warning about perilously high amounts of sugar in breakfast cereals, specifically those designed for children, and has said that levels have barely been cut at all in the last two and a half decades
6/19 Fight against pancreatic cancer takes ‘monumental leap forward’
Scientists have made a “monumental leap forward” in the treatment of pancreatic cancer after discovering using two drugs together dramatically improved patients’ chances of living more than five years after diagnosis.
7/19 Japanese government tells people to stop overworking
The Japanese government has announced measures to limit the amount of overtime employees can do – in an attempt to stop people literally working themselves to death. A fifth of Japan’s workforce are at risk of death by overwork, known as karoshi, as they work more than 80 hours of overtime each month, according to a government survey.
8/19 Over-cooked potatoes and burnt toast ‘could cause cancer’
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has issued a public warning over the risks of acrylamide - a chemical compound that forms in some foods when they are cooked at high temperatures (above 120C).
9/19 Cervical cancer screening attendance hits 19 year low
Cervical screening tests are a vital method of preventing cancer through the detection and treatment of abnormalities in the cervix, but new research shows that the number of women using this service has dropped to a 19 year low.
10/19 High blood pressure may protect over 80s from dementia
The ConversationIt is well known that high blood pressure is a risk factor for dementia, so the results of a new study from the University of California, Irvine, are quite surprising. The researchers found that people who developed high blood pressure between the ages of 80-89 are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form of dementia) over the next three years than people of the same age with normal blood pressure.
11/19 Most child antidepressants are ineffective and can lead to suicidal thoughts
The majority of antidepressants are ineffective and may be unsafe, for children and teenager with major depression, experts have warned. In what is the most comprehensive comparison of 14 commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs to date, researchers found that only one brand was more effective at relieving symptoms of depression than a placebo. Another popular drug, venlafaxine, was shown increase the risk users engaging in suicidal thoughts and attempts at suicide
12/19 'Universal cancer vaccine’ breakthrough claimed by experts
Scientists have taken a “very positive step” towards creating a universal vaccine against cancer that makes the body’s immune system attack tumours as if they were a virus, experts have said. Writing in Nature, an international team of researchers described how they had taken pieces of cancer’s genetic RNA code, put them into tiny nanoparticles of fat and then injected the mixture into the bloodstreams of three patients in the advanced stages of the disease. The patients' immune systems responded by producing "killer" T-cells designed to attack cancer. The vaccine was also found to be effective in fighting “aggressively growing” tumours in mice, according to researchers, who were led by Professor Ugur Sahin from Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany
13/19 Green tea could be used to treat brain issues caused by Down’s Syndrome
A compound found in green tea could improve the cognitive abilities of those with Down’s syndrome, a team of scientists has discovered. Researchers found epigallocatechin gallate – which is especially present in green tea but can also be found in white and black teas – combined with cognitive stimulation, improved visual memory and led to more adaptive behaviour. Dr Rafael de la Torre, who led the year-long clinical trial along with Dr Mara Dierrssen, said: “The results suggest that individuals who received treatment with the green tea compound, together with the cognitive stimulation protocol, had better scores in their cognitive capacities”
14/19 Taking antidepressants in pregnancy ‘could double the risk of autism in toddlers’
Taking antidepressants during pregnancy could almost double the risk of a child being diagnosed with autism in the first years of life, a major study of nearly 150,000 pregnancies has suggested. Researchers have found a link between women in the later stages of pregnancy who were prescribed one of the most common types of antidepressant drugs, and autism diagnosed in children under seven years of age
15/19 Warning over Calpol
Parents have been warned that giving children paracetamol-based medicines such as Calpol and Disprol too often could lead to serious health issues later in life. Leading paediatrician and professor of general paediatrics at University College London, Alastair Sutcliffe, said parents were overusing paracetamol to treat mild fevers. As a result, the risk of developing asthma, as well as kidney, heart and liver damage is heightened
16/19 Connections between brain cells destroyed in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease
Scientists have pinpointed how connections in the brain are destroyed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, in a study which it is hoped will help in the development of treatments for the debilitating condition. At the early stages of the development of Alzheimer’s disease the synapses – which connect the neurons in the brain – are destroyed, according to researchers at the University of New South Wales, Australia. The synapses are vital for brain function, particularly learning and forming memories
17/19 A prosthetic hand that lets people actually feel through
The technology lets paralysed people feel actual sensations when touching objects — including light taps on the mechanical finger — and could be a huge breakthrough for prosthetics, according to its makers. The tool was used to let a 28-year-old man who has been paralysed for more than a decade. While prosthetics have previously been able to be controlled directly from the brain, it is the first time that signals have been successfully sent the other way
18/19 Aspirin could help boost therapies that fight cancer
The latest therapies that fight cancer could work better when combined with aspirin, research has suggested. Scientists from the Francis Crick Institute in London say the anti-inflammatory pain killer suppresses a cancer molecule that allows tumours to evade the body’s immune defences. Laboratory tests have shown that skin, breast and bowel cancer cells often generate large amounts of this molecule, called prostaglandin E2 (PGE2). But Aspirin is one of a family of drugs that sends messages to the brain to block production of PGE2 and this means cancer cells can be attacked by the body’s natural defences
19/19 Potatoes reduce risk of stomach cancer
Scientists have found people who eat large amounts of white vegetables were a third less likely to contract stomach cancer. The study, undertaken by Chinese scientists at Zhejiang University, found eating cauliflower, potatoes and onions reduces the chance of contracting stomach cancer but that beer, spirits, salt and preserved foods increased a person’s risk of the cancer
On March 5, the Canadian government opened its trial against David and Collet. The charge: failing to provide their 19-month-old son, Ezekiel, the necessaries of life.
According to prosecutors, David and Collet stubbornly refused to take their sick son to see a doctor, instead giving him home remedies such as smoothies containing hot pepper, ginger root, horseradish, onion and apple cider vinegar. Even after warnings from a family friend who is a nurse, the anti-vaccine couple took him to a naturopath for echinacea — an herb believed to stimulate the immune system — instead of to a doctor for an exam.
It was only when Ezekiel began to have trouble breathing that they rushed him to a hospital, prosecutors said.
By then, it was too late.
Ezekiel died from bacterial meningitis and empyema, two conditions routinely cured with antibiotics, a medical examiner told the court last week, according to the Lethbridge Herald.
If convicted, the parents could spend up to five years in prison.
The case has stirred outrage across Canada and the United States. It comes at a time when belief in natural and homeopathic remedies is on the rise in North America. More controversially, anti-vaccine sentiment is also surging, leading to a resurgence of once vanquished diseases like measles and whooping cough.
The toddler’s tragic death raises questions of whether and when parents have a duty to take their children to the hospital, despite their personal or religious beliefs.
Ezekiel Stephan wasn’t old enough to speak for himself when he died. Nonetheless, he has become a lightning rod for a raging debate.
In his death, some see dangerous medical quackery. In his parents’ trial, however, others see a witch hunt.
“Isn’t losing their child punishment enough?” one local wrote in the Lethbridge Herald.
“Children have a right to evidence-based medical care, not just prayer and useless folk remedies,” shot back a commenter.
That debate has dominated the lead up to and duration of the trial.
It wasn’t until a year after Ezekiel’s death that the Stephans were charged.
The couple was shocked.
“There’s nothing in the world that will bring him back,” David told the Calgary Herald. “What good could possibly come out of this?
“What could possibly be worse than the suffering we’ve endured for the past year?”
Several Stephan family members suggested the family was being singled out for its beliefs. David’s father, Anthony Stephan, founded a company called TrueHope that sells a natural supplement that claims to fight bipolar disorder.
“Anthony Stephan, a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Alberta, Canada, was away on business when his wife took her life by asphyxiation after affixing a hose to the exhaust pipe of the family minivan,” the Salt Lake City Weekly reported in 2013.” Stephan’s wife had been diagnosed with bipolar-affective disorder, the same ailment that had afflicted her father, who had also taken his life.”
When two of Anthony’s kids were also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he “felt that traditional medication didn’t save his wife and wouldn’t help his children,” according to the alt-weekly. He and a friend devised a nutritional supplement, TrueHope, that they tested out on the two kids. According to a promotional video, the kids felt an effect and were able to quit their medications.
In 2004, the Canadian government’s health department, called Health Canada, took the company to court over the sale of its product EMPowerplus.
TrueHope won two years later, but the case left the Stephan family feeling persecuted.
“Whatever’s going on here stinks,” Brad Stephan told the Huffington Post shortly after the child neglect charges were filed against his brother and sister-in-law. “I don’t see anybody else getting charged for having meningitis.
“I almost have to wonder if we don’t have an officer somewhere or someone just acting overzealous … We just feel this is just really over the top and we’re not understanding why.”
Anthony Stephan insisted that the family is not anti-medicine, despite their criticism of pharmaceutical companies and vaccines.
“We don’t always go to the doctor immediately. If it persists we do, absolutely,” he told the Calgary Herald.
“If there’s any insinuation that they were withholding care from the child, it’s absolutely wrong,” he said, saying medical records showed his family visited doctors.
“This is something that the family missed, no question,” he admitted, adding: “It wasn’t a question of avoidance at all.”
On Facebook, however, David Stephan has claimed that his family has been targeted by Big Pharma and others opposed to his beliefs.
“Since this court case has begun, there has been a great deal of opposition and outright malicious attacks from various organizations, some having pharmaceutical interests and others just having a very strong opposing agenda,” he wrote on March 8, three days into the trial.
He has said his son was on a TrueHope pill called EMPowerplus — “the most powerful daily supplement in the world” — at the time of Ezekiel’s death, but denied that it was intended as a treatment for his illness, which the family believed was a case of croup.
And he has bemoaned being “in the international spotlight” and criticized media for reporting that he and his wife gave the sick toddler “maple syrup.”
“Anyone in their right mind would see how ridiculous this is, and if it wasn’t such a serious matter, it would be laughable,” he wrote on Facebook. “The idea of boosting an immune system with maple syrup, juice and frozen fruit is so illogical that I am left here shaking my head. As all of these items contain high amounts of simple sugars, I would suspect that they would serve to feed viruses and bacteria and actually do the opposite of boosting the immune system.”
David has dubbed the proceedings a “vaccine trial,” claiming the Crown represents the “vaccine agenda.” He says authorities are “looking to create the legal precedent through the court system that when a child falls ill, parents who chose not to vaccinate have a greater onus to seek mainstream medical attention sooner than parents that do vaccinate, and if any harm befalls the non-vaccinated child from an illness that there was a vaccine for, the parents can be held criminally liable.”
He also said his family’s fundraising websites had been taken down repeatedly and that they suffered online abuse.
So far in court, prosecutors have tried to avoid this emotional minefield.
“We’re not saying the accused killed Ezekiel,” prosecutor Clayton Giles said near the beginning of the trial, according to the Lethbridge Herald. “They loved him.”
But, he added, the parents didn’t do enough to help their sick toddler and are responsible for his death.
“They did not take Ezekiel to a doctor when they should have.”
Over the past two weeks, the jury has heard at times excruciating details about Ezekiel’s demise.
Prosecutors claim the boy was sick for several weeks before being rushed to the hospital, where he was kept on life support for a week before passing away.
The defense insists Ezekiel had shown improvement after being given home remedies, and that it was only when he stopped breathing that he seemed dangerously sick.
On March 12, 2012, Collet called Terrie Meynders, a family friend and registered nurse who had been Collet’s birth attendant, to come look at the boy.
Meynders testified that Ezekiel was asleep when she arrived at the Stephans’ home. She listened to his breathing but couldn’t find anything wrong.
“It did not jump out at me that he was that seriously ill,” she told the court, according to the Lethbridge Herald.
She did suggest, however, that he could have viral meningitis, and told Collet to seek medical help.
“I think you should take him to see a doctor,” Meynders testified, according to CBC.
Shortly afterwards, Collet called a local naturopath and asked about treatments for viral meningitis.
“She needed something to build up her baby’s immune system,” Lexie Vataman, a naturopathic clinic employee, testified in court, according to the Lethbridge Herald. “She said, ‘My baby might have a form of meningitis and we think it might be viral and not bacterial.’ ”
(That hunch was mistaken, according to the medical examiner.)
“You need to tell the lady to take the child to emergency right away,” the naturopathic doctor, Tracey Tannis, told Vataman, according to her own testimony.
“I think you should see a medical doctor,” Vataman relayed to Collet.
Vataman did prescribe Ezekiel with an echinacea mixture, however.
Echinacea is an herb “used for colds, flu, and other infections, based on the idea that it might stimulate the immune system to more effectively fight infection,” according to the National Institutes of Health. “Study results are mixed” on its usefulness, the NIH says.
By the time the Stephans drove to the naturopath to pick up the tincture, however, Ezekiel’s body was so stiff from his illness that he couldn’t sit in his car seat, according to an interview — played in court — the couple gave to Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Instead, the couple put a mattress in the back of their vehicle to take him to the naturopath.
A few days later, on March 14, 2012, Ezekiel suddenly crashed.
“All of a sudden his breathing wasn’t normal,” Collet told RCMP.
They called 911 and performed CPR on the toddler as they drove to meet an ambulance, but the boy repeatedly stopped breathing.
“He was blue by the time we met up with the ambulance,” Collet said in the recorded interview.
Ezekiel was eventually airlifted to Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary. By the time he arrived, however, there was little they could do. Doctors testified in court that he had suffered cardiac arrest and was likely already brain dead, according to the Lethbridge Herald.
Five days later, Ezekiel was taken off life support.
The trial is expected to conclude next week.
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