CALGARY — Some experts worry the continuing legal saga of a southern Alberta couple convicted of failing to get proper medical treatment for their son who died of bacterial meningitis could turn them into martyrs for the alternative medicine and anti-vaccination movement.
Tim Caulfield, the research director of the University of Alberta's Health Law and Science Policy Group, said he worries about David Stephan's continued public statements he and his wife were targeted because they didn't vaccinate their children.
"I hope we don't have that incredible polarization but that could be one of the downsides of this whole event — this couple being viewed almost as a martyr for the alternative practitioner side of the story,'' said Caulfield.
"We shouldn't test our ideologies on our children and that seems to be what kind of played out here."
"It almost doesn't matter if we think David is a credible source of information. It almost doesn't matter if he has something insightful to say. The problem is he keeps the narrative alive. He helps to keep the myth alive.''
David and Collet Stephan were found guilty by a jury in April of failing to provide the necessaries of life to 19-month-old Ezekiel. Their trial was told they treated the boy with hot pepper, garlic, onions and horseradish instead of taking him to a doctor, and only called an ambulance after he stopped breathing in 2012.
David Stephan received a four-month jail term and Collet Stephan was handed three months of around-the-clock house arrest.
Both the Crown and defence recently filed appeals and the couple was released on bail Thursday.
"If you're part of the anti-vaccination community you've bought into all of the conspiracy theories."
Before sentencing, David Stephan was interviewed by the producers behind "Vaxxed,'' a controversial documentary alleging a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
He claimed it was a parental rights issue and said it comes down to whether "we have the right to vaccinate or not vaccinate without being held liable.'' In delivering the sentence, Justice Rodney Jerke criticized the father for his "lack of remorse'' and said he seemed more concerned about being punished than about his inaction when his son was sick.
The Stephans also had a significant number of backers turn up for their court appearances, and a website offering them support had many followers.
"If you're part of the anti-vaccination community you've bought into all of the conspiracy theories— that there's someone pulling the strings and withholding the actual data,'' said Caulfield, author of the books "The Cure for Everything! Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness'' and "Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?''
David and Collet Stephan leave the Lethbridge, Alta. courthouse where they were sentenced in the death of their son. (Photo: CP)
"We shouldn't test our ideologies on our children and that seems to be what kind of played out here. They were going to take their ideology right to the wall and unfortunately it resulted in a horrible conclusion.''
University of Calgary bioethicist Juliet Guichon is still hopeful that some in the anti-vaccination movement can be persuaded to change their views.
"There's a small group of parents who probably will never consent to vaccination. Their position is rigid but that's a small percentage and the rest of the population can be stratified into what types of communication they require,'' she said.
"I think communication makes a big difference to people who may believe that Mr. Stephan is a hero.''
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Your newborn should get this shot even before leaving the hospital, and receive another dose at one to two months and a third at six to 18 months. The vaccine protects against an incurable, liver-infecting virus, hepatitis B, which can be passed to a baby during childbirth if the mother is infected. This virus spreads through contact with blood or other body fluids (sharing toothbrushes and utensils can put you at risk). Soreness at the site of the shot, or a slight fever, is the most common side effect, according to Gabrielle Gold-von Simson, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York.
The DTaP vaccine protects against diphtheria (a germ that can form a gray or black film in the throat), tetanus (an infection that can cause muscle spasms so strong they can break bones), and pertussis (a highly contagious disease that causes a severe, uncontrollable cough, known as whooping cough). Five vaccine doses are given to children at two months, four months, six months, 15 to 18 months and four to six years. (And boosters at age 11 or 12 and then every 10 years.) DTaP may be combined with other vaccinations to reduce the number of shots needed. "Now, it's DTaP with hepatitis B and the polio vaccine. So, it's five in one," Dr. Gold-von Simson says.
This combo shot protects against three viruses: measles (which causes high fever and a body-wide rash); mumps (which causes face pain, swelling of the salivary glands, and sometimes scrotal swelling in boys); and rubella or German measles (which can cause birth defects if the infection occurs during pregnancy). The first shot is given at 12 to 15 months of age and once again between the ages of four and six. MMR is sometimes combined with the chickenpox vaccine into one shot (brand name ProQuad). "All these different preparations are designed to reduce the amount of shots the pediatrician has to give," says Dr. Gold-von Simson.
Chickenpox, a highly contagious rash that many people remember from childhood, is caused by the varicella virus. A varicella vaccine was first licensed in 1995 and now spares future generations this itchy misery. Chickenpox infections can be especially dangerous in adults who don't have immunity from the vaccine or haven't had it in childhood, and can also lead to shingles, an extremely painful blistering rash. The shot is given to children at 12 to 15 months and again between four and six years. The vaccine can cause soreness at the site of the shot, fever, and, in some cases, a mild rash.
"Haemophilus influenza type b is the bacterium that causes meningitis," says Dr. Gold-von Simson. Meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, is particularly dangerous for kids under the age of five. Hib vaccines are generally given at two, four, six, and 12 to 15 months of age. Depending on the vaccine used, the six-month shot may not be needed. Fever, swelling, and redness at the site of the shot are potential side effects.
Polio vaccine is "such a success," says Dr. Gold-von Simson. "Because of the vaccine, there are no more cases (of polio)." There are no more in the United States that is. The virus hasn't been eradicated worldwide, so kids still get the IPV, or inactivated polio vaccine, which is a shot containing killed virus. Polio is bad news, and can cause paralysis and even death. Children are given the IPV at two months, four months, between six to 18 months, and then again between the ages of four and six years.
This vaccine, known as PCV13 (brand name Prevnar), protects against 13 types of Streptococcus pneumoniae, which are bacteria that can cause all sorts of mayhem, including meningitis, pneumonia, ear infections, blood infections, and even death. A total of four shots are given to kids (at two, four, six, and 12 to 15 months of age) to protect them against the germs, known collectively as pneumococcal bacteria. The most common side effects of the vaccine include drowsiness, swelling at the site of the shot, mild fever, and irritability.
Flu vaccinations are given each year starting in the fall. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends them for kids ages six months or older, although they aren't required for school attendance. (Connecticut and New Jersey require the vaccine for attending child-care centers and preschool.) Common side effects from the vaccine include soreness, redness, or swelling at the site of the shot. Fever and aches may occur too. "If you have an egg allergy, you shouldn't have the influenza vaccine," says Dr. Gold-von Simson.
The rotavirus vaccine (RV) (brand names RotaTeq, Rotarix) is given to children at two and four months of age. (RotaTeq is also given at six months.) The vaccine protects against a virus that is the most common cause of severe diarrhea and vomiting in young kids worldwide. About 55,000 children in the U.S. were hospitalized each year due to rotavirus before the vaccine was licensed in 2006. It is not required for school attendance. The vaccine is in liquid form and given by mouth to babies. It may make them a bit more irritable and can also cause mild diarrhea or vomiting.
Kids can catch hepatitis A from sharing food or drinks or by putting contaminated food or objects in their mouths. It's a viral infection that affects the liver, and can cause a number of symptoms, including fever, tiredness, jaundice, and loss of appetite. Children ages 12 through 23 months generally get two doses of the Hep A vaccine, with a minimum interval of six months between shots. Some states require the vaccine for school attendance. Soreness where the shot was given, headache, and loss of appetite are the most common side effects of the vaccine.
This vaccine, known as MCV4 (brand name Menactra), protects against meningococcal bacteria, which can infect the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. MCV4 is recommended for kids at 11 or 12 years of age, and anyone between ages two and 55 who is at increased risk of infection (people with certain health conditions, military recruits). Teens starting college should be vaccinated with MCV4 before going to school if they didn't previously get the shot. (Freshman living in dorms are at increased risk of infection.) A little pain at the site of the shot is the most common side effect.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine (brand names Gardasil, Cervarix) is given in three doses over a six-month period, and is approved for girls between ages nine and 26. While there are over a hundred types of HPV, this vaccine protects against two sexually transmitted types that are the most common causes of cervical cancer. Gardasil also protects against two types that cause genital warts and is approved for boys between nine and 26 as well. The vaccine works only if given before an infection, so doctors recommend it for kids well before they could become sexually active. Although most states don't require HPV vaccination, many are considering mandating it for preteen girls.