A Canadian couple whose 19-month-old baby died of meningitis after being treated with only home remedies is on trial in Alberta.
David Stephan, 32, and his wife Collet Stephan, 35, have pleaded not guilty to failing to provide the necessaries of life for their son Ezekiel, who died four years ago. If they're found guilty, they could be sentenced to up to five years in jail.
"I'm not saying they killed him, abused him or ignored him — they loved him," Crown prosecutor Clayton Giles said in court, according to Global News. "They didn't take him to a doctor until it was too late — far too late."
Ezekiel had already been sick for a couple of weeks when suddenly he stopped breathing, prompting his parents to call an ambulance. The child was then airlifted to a Calgary hospital. He was taken off of life support after five days.
"Obviously they were loving parents, and they weren't trying to harm their kid, but the question is, was there clearly a point in time when they should've taken their child to a doctor?" Tim Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law & Policy at the University of Alberta, explained. "That's the question the Crown is trying to put in front of the jury."
The doctors determined that he'd been suffering from a lung infection, which had developed into meningitis — a revelation that may not have come as a shock to his mother Collet. In an interview with the RCMP, who were called in by hospital staff, Collet told an officer that a nurse she consulted, who was also a family friend, warned her that Ezekiel probably had meningitis, the court heard.
Collet told police she'd assumed Ezekiel, who'd been dealing with a runny nose and fever in February 2012, had a respiratory infection called croup, and that natural remedies seemed to be helping him. On the tape, according to the CBC, the parents explained they preferred naturopathic remedies because of past negative experiences with the medical system.
Among the remedies David and Collet gave Ezekiel to boost his immune system when they noticed him becoming stiff and lethargic were olive leaf extract, whey protein, water with maple syrup, juice with frozen berries, and a mixture of apple cider vinegar, horseradish root, hot pepper, mashed onions, garlic, and ginger, the CBC reported.
But on his Facebook page, David writes that CBC's reporting of these facts a "major misrepresentation," although he doesn't offer an alternative explanation.
"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," he writes. "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."
According to Global, the court heard that Ezekiel's believed he was getting better. But after he took a nap, he stopped breathing — that's when they called 911.
While the Stephans, who have said in the past that they were "blindsided" by the criminal charges, didn't respond to VICE News' requests for an interview, they have made several Facebook posts about the trial.
On a memorial page for their son, they argued that the government lawyers had an agenda to go after those who did not believe in vaccinations — the so-called 'anti-vaxxer' community.
A negative outcome, they wrote on February 10 , would "create the legal precedent that when a child falls ill, parents who chose not to vaccinate have a greater onus to seek mainstream medical attention sooner than parents who 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…bringing us one step closer to vaccinations."
But Caulfield doesn't believe the path is as clear. While the government should be taking "a stand against pseudoscience that can do real harm," he said, this theory is "a bit of a stretch."
"In this case, with the decision not to go to a doctor for something like meningitis, where we have a clear cure, it's much clearer — but for their decision not to go to the doctor, there were these adverse events," he said. "With vaccination, the causation may not be as clear.
"Having said that, it does set up a legal norm that embraces the idea of more science-informed decision," he continued. "This case could add to that debate and it could be pointed to by those who think the government should take a stronger stand when it comes to unscientific approaches to particular positions to health."
This isn't the first time the Stephans' affinity for natural remedies has gotten them into trouble. The couple's company, Truehope Nutritional Support, challenged Health Canada in court in 2004 after the federal health watchdog seized a small shipment of their supplement EMPowerplus.
Truehope sold the product as an "alternative mental health treatment" for people with bipolar disorder, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.
While Health Canada failed to block its distribution, the agency has issued several warnings over the years about the "potential risk to health associated" with taking EMPowerplus, and expressed concern about "unauthorized health claims, and medical advice being provided by non-medically qualified staff."
Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @Anima_tk