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
1/25 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
2/25 '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
3/25 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”
4/25 New online test predicts skin cancer risk
Health experts have created a new online tool which can predict a person’s risk of developing a common form of skin cancer. The tool uses the results of a 10-question-quiz to estimate the chance of a person aged 40 or over of having non-melanoma skin cancers within three years. Factors including the age, gender, smoking status, skin colour, tanning ability, freckling tendency, and other aspects of medical history are covered by the quiz
5/25 Multiple Sclerosis stem cell treatment 'helps patients walk again'
A new treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS) has enabled some patients to walk again by “rebooting” their immune systems. As part of a clinical trial at Sheffield's Royal Hallamshire Hospital involving around 20 patients, scientists used stem cells to carry out a bone marrow transplant. The method known as an autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT) works by using chemotherapy to destroy the area of the immune system which causes MS
6/25 Dementia patients left without painkillers and handcuffed to bed
Dementia patients experience a ‘shocking’ variation in the quality of hospital care they receive across England, a charity has warned. Staff using excessive force and not giving dementia patients the correct pain medication were among the findings outlined in a new report by The Alzheimer’s Society, to coincide with the launch of Fix Dementia Care campaign
7/25 Cancer risk 'increased' by drinking more than one glass of wine or pint of beer per day
Drinking more than one glass of wine or pint of beer a day increases the risk of developing cancer, according to medical experts. New guidelines for alcohol consumption by the UK published by chief medical officers warn that drinking any level of alcohol has been linked to a range of different cancers. The evidence from the Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) overturns the oft-held view that a glass of red wine can have significant medical benefits for both men and women
8/25 Vaping 'no better' than smoking regular cigarettes
Vaping could be “no better” than smoking regular cigarettes and may be linked to cancer, scientists have found. The study which showed that vapour from e-cigarettes can damage or kill human cells was publsihed as the devices are to be rolled out by UK public health officials as an aid to quit smoking from 2016. An estimated 2.6 million people in the UK currently use e-cigarettes
9/25 Rat-bite fever
A teenager was hospitalised and left unable to move after she developed the rare rat-bite fever disease from her pet rodents which lived in her bedroom. The teenager, who has not been named, was taken to hospital after she complained of a pain in her right hip and lower back which later made her immobile, according to the online medical journal BMJ Case Reports. She suffered for two weeks with an intermittent fever, nausea and vomiting and had a pink rash on her hands and feet. The teenager, who had numerous pets including a dog, cat, horse and three pet rats, has since made a full recovery after undergoing a course of antibiotics. Blood tests showed that she was infected with for streptobacillus moniliformis – the most common cause of rat-bite fever. One of her three pet rats lay dead in her room for three weeks before her symptoms showed
10/25 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
11/25 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
12/25 Fat loss from pancreas 'can reverse' effects of type-2 diabetes
Less than half a teaspoon of fat is all that it takes to turn someone into a type-2 diabetic according to a study that could overturn conventional wisdom on a disease affecting nearly 3 million people in Britain. Researchers have found it is not so much the overall body fat that is important in determining the onset of type-2 diabetes but the small amount of fat deposited in the pancreas, the endocrine organ responsible for insulin production
13/25 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
14/25 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
15/25 Sugar tax
The Government should introduce a sugar tax to prevent an “obesity crisis” from crippling the NHS, a senior Conservative MP and former health minister has said. Dr Dan Poulter believes that the case for increased taxes on unhealthy sugary products was “increasingly compelling”
16/25 Cancer breakthrough offers new hope for survivors rendered infertile by chemotherapy
A potentially “phenomenal” scientific breakthrough has offered fresh hope to cancer patients rendered infertile by chemotherapy. For the first time, researchers managed to restore ovaries in mice affected by chemotherapy so that they were able to have offspring. The scientists now plan to begin clinical trials to see if the technique, which involves the use of stem cells, will also work in humans by using umbilical cord material and possibly stem cells taken from human embryos, if regulators agree
17/25 Take this NHS test to find out if you have a cancerous mole
An interactive test could help flag up whether you should seek advice from a health professional for one of the most common types of cancer. The test is available on the NHS Choices website and reveals whether you are at risk from the disease and recommends if you should seek help. The mole self-assessment factors in elements such as complexion, the number of times you have been severely sunburnt and whether skin cancer runs in your family. It also quizzes you on the number of moles you have and whether there have been any changes in appearance regarding size, shape and colour
18/25 Health apps approved by NHS 'may put users at risk of identity theft'
Experts have warned that some apps do not adequately protect personal information
19/25 A watchdog has said that care visits must last longer
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) said home help visits of less than 30 minutes were not acceptable unless part of a wider package of support
20/25 Pendle in Lancashire tops list of five most anxious places to live in the UK
Pendle in Lancashire has been named the most anxious place to live in the UK, while people living in Fermanagh and Omagh in Northern Ireland have been found to be the happiest
21/25 Ketamine could be used as anti-depressant
Researchers at the University of Auckland said monitoring the effects of the drug on the brain has revealed neural pathways that could aid the development of fast-acting medications. Ketamine is a synthetic compound used as an off anaesthetic and analgesic drug, but is commonly used illegally as a hallucinogenic party drug. Dr Suresh Muthukumaraswamy, a senior researcher at the university and a member of the institution’s Centre for Brain Research, used the latest technology in brain imaging to investigate what mechanisms ketamine uses to be active in the human brain
22/25 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
23/25 The biggest cause of early death in the world is what you eat
Unhealthy eating has been named as the most common cause of premature death around the globe, new data has revealed. A poor diet – which involves eating too few vegetables, fruits, nuts and grains and too much red meat, salt and sugar - was shown to be a bigger killer than smoking and alcohol
24/25 Scientists develop blood test that estimates how quickly people age
Scientists believe it could be used to predict a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease as well as the “youthfulness” of donated organs for transplant operations. The test measures the vitality of certain genes which the researchers believe is an accurate indication of a person’s “biological age”, which may be younger or older than their actual chronological age
25/25 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
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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