Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Dying of (your parents') ignorance

This is a heartbreaking story:


A nine month old girl died of septicemia when her eczema became so bad that her skin constantly broke, resulting in a fatal infection. I suffer from (comparatively mild) eczema myself and it's very safe to say that the condition is extremely apparent. You just can't fail to notice if your baby's skin is breaking open. Add to that the fact that severe eczema is a very unpleasant condition, especially for a young child. This one would certainly have been in constant discomfort, with unbearably itchy and painful skin (and unable to scratch effectively). You can be damn sure she would have let her parents know about this in the only way she could: constant crying. In fact, the he Crown prosecutor, Mark Tedeschi, QC, says exactly this:
"Gloria spent a lot of the last five months of her life crying, irritable, scratching"
How can this story possibly be made worse? Gloria's postgraduate-educated parents were advised first by a nurse and later by their GP that they should consult a skin specialist, but they refused in favour of homeopathic 'medicine'. The father is a homeopath and presumably believes in his particular brand of snake oil, but Tedeschi says that on the few occasions they tried conventional treatments, Gloria's condition improved and they immediately reverted to homeopathy. Sadly, this is a common pattern. It's a desperate and probably unconscious attempt to rationalise beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary and we see it in all kinds of quackery and superstition. The man's sister allegedly pleaded with the father to send Gloria to a proper doctor and he said "I'm not able to do that."

The parents are currently being tried for manslaughter by gross criminal negligence, which sounds about right to me. There can be no justification for such abuse and neglect, regardless of superstitious belief and no justification for others respecting superstitions of this kind. Proper treatments for eczema demonstrably work. Homeopathic ones demonstrably do not.

As heartbreaking as this story is and as angry I am at Gloria's parents for her needless suffering and death, I still find myself feeling sorry for them. These are people who are handicapped by a self-reinforcing belief system that has many of the hallmarks of a religion. It encourages believers to be selective of evidence: rejecting proper medical trials and accepting without question anecdotes and circumstantial evidence. For example, believers in homeopathy often (as this couple did) give their 'patients' conventional medicine at the same time as homeopathic jollup, yet attribute any recovery to the latter. Sadly, I suspect this is what happened in Gloria's case. For this reason, I consider the parents victims. They are victims of their own hubris as much as victims of a cynical industry that trades on and delights in ignorance.

However, they are not so much victims as their poor daughter, who died needlessly, helplessly and in torment. If they are found guilty, I hope the judge throws away the key.

No comments: