MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Proponents of alternative medicine regularly stress the notion that their treatments are either risk-free or much safer than conventional medicine. This assumption may be excellent for marketing bogus treatments, however, it neglects that even a relatively harmless therapy can become dangerous, if it is ineffective. Here is yet again a tragic reminder of this undeniable fact.

Japanese doctors reported the case of 2-year-old girl who died of precursor B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), the most common cancer in children.

She had no remarkable medical history. She was transferred to a hospital because of respiratory distress and died 4 hours after arrival. Two weeks before her death, she had developed a fever of 39 degrees C, which subsided after the administration of a naturopathic herbal remedy. One week before death, she developed jaundice, and her condition worsened on the day of death.

Laboratory test results on admission to hospital showed a markedly elevated white blood cell count. Accordingly, the cause of death was suspected to be acute leukaemia. Forensic autopsy revealed the cause of death to be precursor B-cell ALL.

With the current advancements in medical technology, the 5-year survival rate of children with ALL is nearly 90%. However, in this case, the child’s parents had opted for naturopathy instead of evidence-based medicine. They had not taken her to a hospital for a medical check-up or immunisation since she was an infant. If the child had received routine medical care, she would have a more than 60% chance of being alive 5 years after diagnosis of ALL.

The authors of this case-report concluded that the parents should be accused of medical neglect regardless of their motives.

Such cases are tragic and infuriating in equal measure. There is no way of knowing how often this sort of thing happens; we rely entirely on anecdotes because systematic research is hardly feasible.

While anecdotes of this nature have their obvious limitations, they are nevertheless important. They can serve as poignant reminders that alternative remedies might be relatively harmless, but this does not necessarily apply to all alternative practitioners. Moreover, they should make us redouble our efforts to inform the public responsibly about the all too often trivialized risks of alternative medicine.

9 Responses to Death of a child through naturopathy

  • Maybe parents who are doubtful about vaccines should be informed that health check-up before immunisation is a good way to find out serious and even deadly diseases?

  • It is particularly discouraging that such a case would be reported in Japan where education standards in science are higher than in the US. Alternative medicine seems to encourage the thinking flaws similar to those common to religions. They are self reinforcing inside the group of adherents. Criticism of faulty thinking has become unacceptable in many societies. With this mindset the purveyors of nonsense have no responsibility for bad outcomes. We even have to defend the idea that the needless death of a child is a bad outcome. Basic information by itself does not seem to be enough. In the US the biggest consumers of att-med a people with University degrees – usually in the “soft” sciences. They are convinced that they know more than real health care folks.

    • The amount of facts children must lear at Science classes (if they have such) does not say anything. They must be able to apply knowledge. And this is not always the aim of education. And even if it is, you can in some (many?) cases get good grade by just reciting facts.
      And such people are the easiest target for quacks that uses sciency terminology, points out mistakes scientists how commited long before science existed as we understand it now….

  • The authors of this case-report concluded that the parents should be accused of medical neglect regardless of their motives.

    Any legal restraint or punishment that includes the phrase “regardless of their motives” makes me want to step back a bit and take a long, hard look at whether this is really a good idea, especially when it involves forced medical attention. I concede that it is sometimes necessary, but the infringement on individual rights, the lack of distinction between knowing neglect and un-knowing neglect, and the possibility of this law leading to even more draconian laws certainly warrants strong consideration.

    • @FrankLeeMeiDere
      Parental rights are far from absolute. As you seem to acknowledge, neglect of children can lead to state intervention, including enforced removal of children from their parents. As societies evolve and cultures shift we inevitably move away steadily from the idea that a parent can treat its offspring any way it chooses simply because of a personal, entirely subjective belief. Your term “knowing neglect” says it all. A person who wilfully deprives a child of benefits offered by scientific, medical and technological process is a neglectful parent – possibly more so than one who neglects “unknowingly”. Any neglectful parent places themself at risk of sanctions from society, and it’s up to society to determine the nature and severity of those sanctions, in just the same way as society does for other crimes.

      • That sounds like smokers who are suing tobacco companies – all this “Nobody told me that smoking was bad!” (allthough there is information everywhere). But if you want rationalise deconstructive behaviour, you will also find rationalisation.

      • Or is there at least somewhat developed country where you just get pregnant, come to deliver, adter which nurse hands out the baby and tells to get lost?
        I think it is always conscious decision.

  • “the infringement on individual rights, the lack of distinction between knowing neglect and un-knowing neglect”

    Whose individual rights? The parents do not have the right to deprive their offspring of evidence based medicine. The child is not capable of making a decision and therefore it is up to the state to intervene when parents decisions are harmful.

  • Without having read the full report, I have to wonder whether the authors re-labeled kanpo (traditional Japanese medicine incorporating typically Chinese herbal medicine) with the Western construct of “complementary and alternative medicine (i.e., naturopathy)”, or the parents consulted with individuals purveying naturopathic treatments imported, as it were, from the West. As I recall, kanpo is covered by the national health care program of Japan as an accepted, government-sanctioned form of medicine. While I feel pity for the parents who were apparently ignorant of the limitations of the treatment they preferred, I suspect negligence on the part of whoever diagnosed and treated the child.

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