Another child killed by faith

November 25, 2013 • 7:23 am

This time the faith is not religious, but faith in homeopathy and herbal remedies; and the child is not from the U.S. but Canada.

According to both the National Post and the CBC News Calgary, a 44-year old mother, Tamara Sophie Lovett, was charged two days ago with both criminal negligence and “failure to provide the necessities of life” to her 7-year-old son, Ryan, who died in March of a streptococcus A infection. Such an infection is almost invariably curable by penicillin (the bugs, surprisingly, haven’t evolved resistance to that old antibiotic, even over many years).  It’s possible that Ryan had necrotizing fasciitis, the so-called “flesh-eating bacteria,” but in a child that is also treatable if caught early.

From the National Post:

According to police, the boy was bedridden for 10 days before his death, however, the mother declined to seek medical treatment, relying instead on homeopathic remedies, including herbal medicines.

“It should absolutely serve as a warning to other parents,” said Calgary Police Service Staff Sergeant Michael Cavilla. “The message is quite simple: If your child is sick, take them to see a doctor.”

Police said they arrested the 44-year-old woman on Friday; charges are pending. She cannot be named until she is formally charged. [Note: the CBC names her since she has been charged.]
According to Sgt. Cavilla, the boy looked poorly before he died and several of the mother’s friends had advised her to seek a doctor. In the early morning on the day of his death, she phoned 9-1-1; paramedics arrived to find the child in cardiac arrest. He was later pronounced dead.

. . . An autopsy concluded he had a Group A streptococcal infection that could have been treated with penicillin.

The police said they have no medical records for the boy prior to his death. The child had recently been enrolled in a local school. Prior to January of this year, he had been home-schooled.

The law violated was this one:

Under the Criminal Code of Canada, it is a legal requirement for a parent or guardian to provide the necessaries of life, which are defined by the courts as food, shelter, care and medical attention necessary to sustain life and protection from harm.

“If you do not provide medical attention to your sick child, you will be held accountable,” Staff Sgt. Mike Cavilla said at a press conference Friday afternoon.

From the CBC:

Police allege the victim’s mother ignored pleas from friends to seek medical treatment for Ryan.

“There were a number of people that had contact with the child during the period of illness,” said Cavilla. “These people did approach the mother and suggested that she do take him to see a medical professional.”

The definitive assessment appears in the Post (my emphasis):

Tim Caulfield, a scholar and Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, said cases like this are tragic and increasingly common.

“The interest in and demand for complementary and alternative medicine continues to grow. There are many factors driving this trend, including suspicion of conventional medicine and ‘Big Pharma.’”

He said this has resulted in an increase in measles outbreaks due to vaccination fears, and the growth in popularity of naturopathic practitioners, who often prescribe ineffective homeopathic remedies.

“Alternative medicine is associated with many risks,” he said. Supplements often don’t contain what they proclaim on the label and herbal remedies can interact with conventional medicine.

Further, alternative therapies can induce patients to avoid effective, conventional treatments, he added.

“We don’t need alternative medicine and conventional medicine. We need science-based medicine. Period,” he said.

Indeed, for how can you show that something works unless it’s scientifically tested? Such tests of homeopathy show no effects; likewise with intercessory prayer. And although the Christian Science Church publishes testimonies of healings, they don’t mention the number of time prayer didn’t cure.  And even if they did, such reports are anecdotal.

The CBC notes that this situation is not a one-off, even in Canada:  “Juliet Guichon, a medical ethicist and an assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Medicine, says it’s not uncommon for the medical profession to run into parents who don’t believe in conventional treatments.”

The fact that Ryan was abused by dosing him with useless herbal and homeopathic treatments shows that the problem here—like the problem with all the children I’ve described who succumbed to religiously-based medical neglect—is ultimately not religion but faith. Faith in alternative medicine shows many of the same pseudoscientific traits as does faith in religion, the main difference being that religious child abusers see the judgment of God hanging over their actions.  But in both cases child abuse results from a rejection of modern medicine and an unwarranted faith in unevidenced remedies, whether they be prayer, herbs, or water placebo. Religion, like homeopathy, is a pseudoscience, resting on faulty but strongly held statements about reality. And in this case the conflict between science and faith—a conflict that we’re repeatedly assured is not real—proved fatal.

It’s not rocket science to see this, as did one Canadian police officer:

“We have no direct information that religious beliefs factored into this, but there was a belief system and homeopathic medicine did factor in,” Sgt. Cavilla said.

The CBC site has a video of Ryan dancing around: a lovely and lively child. Here he is:

Ryan Lovett.
His grandfather also said the boy was a gifted artist, and frequently participated in community art shows. “[He] was one of the most wonderful little boys you can imagine. I did spend a lot of time with him. I have a baseball that I gave him, which I asked my daughter to give back to me to carry in the car. I speak to him every day. He was full of life.”
Over at Science-Based Medicine, Harriet Hall has a new article on the dangers of faith healing.

h/t: Royce, Don

32 thoughts on “Another child killed by faith

  1. Faith in alternative medicine shows many of the same pseudoscientific traits as does faith in religion … Religion, like homeopathy, is a pseudoscience, resting on faulty statements about the nature of reality.

    In addition to resting on “faith” (you believe what you believe because of who you are), there are other connections between alt med and religion. If you dig under a lot of the underlying assumptions of homeopathy, reiki, herbalism etc. you will find a lot of supernatural beliefs. Sympathetic magic, vitalism, the Naturalistic Fallacy and mind/body dualism: this is not religion per se, it’s more basic. It’s spirituality — the supernatural heart of religion.

    I have some friends who are strong proponents of so-called alternative medicine. When I question them they very quickly and easily abandon the scientific status of their claims in order to rest them on their religious nature. Yes, an atheist will have trouble understanding or accepting alt med because one has to be open to spirituality. The evidence behind the medicine and therapies can only be accepted by those who are emotionally ready for it and capable of abandoning materialism.

      1. Yes, indeed. CAM modalities are generally no better than placebos. Which is no problem as far as magical thinkers/ dualists are concerned. Harnessing the power of the placebo means encouraging credulity in magical thinking.

  2. Can you imagine the pain this poor child was in? I had bad strep throat as a kid once & I never forgot the pain – so much so that I live in total fear of getting it again.

    I’ve seen naturopaths offer “natural flu vaccines” and I do not like them using the word “vaccine”. I wrote to government representatives to put warnings on these things so people were aware they were not the same thing. They finally did change this.

  3. I still look like I had an animal take a bite out of my calves from a bout of this – my limbs were on fire and I couldn’t walk on them. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if it had spread further; poor kid 🙁

  4. Also very puzzling is that there is no mention that authorities were ever alerted about the boy’s medical neglect and seriously deteriorating health. If the grandfather visited the home he must have seen the boy’s condition, right?

    1. If this all happened over the course of hardly 2 weeks, what people may have visited may have ascribed the symptoms to a bad case of influenza. Which not everybody would find a cause to call a doctor.

    1. I’m not sure, but we do have the Good Sam act which requires a person to assist another in distress to the best of their ability (without putting themselves at risk), i.e., a medical doctor/nurse/paramedic/EMT/lifeguard/first aid attendant is legally obligated to offer medical aid to the best of their ability under the circumstance. Even Joe Blow would, at the very least, be expected to call 911.

      As a general rule we are taught in school our rights as a individual are superseded by our responsibilities to those who rely on us, e.g., it would be ethically wrong for an adult to smoke in a car, windows closed, with a baby in the back seat, as the adult is responsible for the child and the child cannot open a window, or get out and “walk” away. I could reasonably see the RCMP pulling someone over and commenting on this…

  5. And then there’s this (from my Consumer Health Digest email)…

    Bleeding reported in infants whose parents declined vitamin K injections

    Four cases of severe bleeding have been reported in infants whose parents did not permit them to get the vitamin K injection that is routinely administered at birth. [Warren M and others. Late vitamin K deficiency bleeding in infants whose parents declined vitamin K prophylaxis—Tennessee, 2013. MMWR 62:901-902, 2013] The parents of these children said they did not think the shot was necessary, wanted to minimize exposure to “toxins,” and were concerned that the injections might increase the risk of leukemia. Vitamin K is needed to synthesize a compound that is needed for blood clotting. Infants are born with low stores and need supplementation until they can get adequate intake from food and intestinal bacteria that synthesize it. An injection shortly after birth gives 100% protection during the vulnerable period. Orally administered vitamin K is nearly as effective, but not 100%. Those who receive no external vitamin K are at greater risk for bleeding. [American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Fetus and Newborn. Controversies concerning vitamin K and the newborn. Pediatrics 112:101-102, 2003] The authors of the case report found that 3.4% of 3,080 infants born in one of three Nashville area hospitals surveyed and 28% of 218 infants born in four Tennessee non-hospital birthing centers did not receive intramuscular vitamin K after birth.

    Consumer Health Digest is a free weekly e-mail newsletter edited by Stephen Barrett, M.D., with help from William M. London, Ed.D. It summarizes scientific reports; legislative developments; enforcement actions; news reports; Web site evaluations; recommended and nonrecommended books; and other information relevant to consumer protection and consumer decision-making.

  6. Homeopathy is, of course, complete crap, but herbal remedies are quite another kettle of fish. The difficulty is that some herbs are effective treatments for some disorders in some people.

    Individual metabolisms are to a degree idiosyncratic, so what works for Joe Blow may be totally ineffective for his husband Josephine.

    This neglects the very serious issue that many “herbal remedies” are contaminated or don’t even contain the herb(s) they claim to.

    In spite of my beliefs, I wouldn’t shed one tear if herbal remedies were flatly outlawed (along with homeopathic ones). I’ve known people who thought that “herbal” means “magical”, and we all know where magical thinking leads.

    1. Pharmacognosy is the scientific study of medicines derived from herbs and other natural products. My understanding is that something like 30-40% of all pharmaceuticals get their start this way.

      Alt med then tries to co-opt this perfectly normal and reasonable part of science for its own — thereby providing cover for the untested and extreme claims regarding herbal remedies.

      I once tried to explain to some alties that, given a choice, the ‘artificial’ laboratory version of an herbal remedy is preferable to the ‘natural’ version, because the first one is going to be purer.

      Did … not …. compute.

      1. Tell the alties that I, a chemistry professor, have trained (or, tried to train) many of the people who are extracting “natural” herbal compounds from the plants they occur in, for sale as supplements to humans to consume.

        I have looked over those chemists’ shoulders at their data as they say “See, it’s pure enough”, and many times I’ve practically screamed, while pointing at the numbers, “What about this impurity and that impurity and that one?”. To which they reply “But it’s pure *enough*.”

        “Natural” remedies are prepared by exactly the same careless, half-educated people as “Big Pharma” medicines. But, Big Pharma is made to toe the line by those with the authority to impose millions of dollars of fines, let alone civil penalties. So what you get from Big Pharma is pure and what’s in the bottle is what it says on the label. That is not the case for almost any “natural” supplement that I’ve seen the preparation of.

        If you really must have only “natural” medicine, avoid half-educated chemists. Just get the plant in question and chew it. If it also contains toxins, you’ll probably just vomit it up anyway, what could go wrong? It’s all natural!

        1. Ahhh, ‘pure and natural’. That was the slogan adopted here (NZ) by the dairy industry when margarine first became available in quantity – trying to con people that margarine was, by contrast, full of nasty artificial ‘chemicals’. ‘Natural’ – yeah, as anyone who’s ever sniffed the air downwind of a cowshed would know. And ‘pure’ – pure what? Pure saturated fat processed in a (gasp) factory…

          It’s become a sort of ironic sarcastic catchphrase since – as it richly deserved to.

    2. I once read, in the Letters to the Editor section of a science magazine, a letter from a woman who insisted that herbal remedies must not be tested and labeled by content analysis because that would spoil their effectiveness. The very essence of herbal medicine, in this woman’s view, is not knowing exactly what you’re taking.

  7. For “faith”, in this context, read intuition combined with wishful thinking. Lack of critical thinking. Lack of basic science savvy.

    It makes sense to be suspicious of big pharma. They have form! But not so suspicious that your brains drop out and you to decide to trust in your own intuition over a clear scientific consensus for particular drugs and other medicines. The case of vaccination is a paradigm in this respect. The unfortunate fact is that all drugs have the potential for unwanted side effects which is why conscientious scientific testing is so vital.

    Pleasant sounding, seemingly perfectly safe treatments that sound too good to be true, almost always are untrue. Snake-oil practitioners are as rapacious as any dodgy drug company. Which is why their claims should also be subject to conscientious scientific testing. Such testing has been done for many CAM modalities, like homeopathy and acupuncture and has shown them to be no better than placebos. Which means that any apparent benefit cannot be due to the supposed medical agent but must be a consequence of incidental extraneous factors – factors inherent to any form of treatment.

    1. Whilst we are on the subject I would also put in a word on the subject of animal testing. Nobody in their right mind likes the thought of testing treatments on animals. But nobody in their right mind, who is not an expert, is going to challenge the scientific consensus on the benefits of such testing. Yet this is what many anti-vivisectionists preach.

      The morality of using animals for such research is an open question. We all entitled to our own opinion. Whether or not such research is of scientific benefit is for scientists to decide.

  8. “relying instead on homeopathic remedies, including herbal medicines”


    Homeopathic remedies are not herbal remedies. It’s very frustrating to see reporters who don’t know any better (or care to find out, it seems) promulgating this myth. It’s frustrating because there is at least some plausibility behind the idea of herbal remedies, whereas there is doubly none behind homeopathic remedies and if what they really are were more well known we might see fewer people supporting them.

    In case anyone doesn’t know just what homeopathic remedies are, let me sum it up for you quickly. First, you take a substance that causes similar symptoms to what the patient already has, then you dilute that ingredient down until nothing is left, and then you give the patient that nothing, usually in the form of water or a sugar pill that once touched said water. Yes, it is utterly preposterous, and unsurprisingly the available evidence strongly shows that it is entirely a placebo.

  9. I think this sort of thing happens more than many people know. It’s dreadful when the victom is a child. And I know of at least one adult who would probably be alive today if he and his family hadn’t decided alternative medicines were better for treating his usually fairly curable cancer than real medicine!

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