An unnatural belief in natural cures

March 26, 2018 - 09:00

There seemed to be a collective gasp of horror as the news spread recently of a mother and her new-born dying as she tried to give birth at home.

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by Thu Vân

There seemed to be a collective gasp of horror as the news spread recently of a mother and her new-born dying as she tried to give birth at home.

It was, thankfully, followed by a collective sigh of relief as the deaths turned out to be a piece of fake news.

But this fake news opened the door to a very real, very scary movement involving hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese mothers, one that swears by nature, but swears off modern medicine.

While their motto of letting nature take its course seems sensible, even desirable, the rejection of scientific knowledge sows some doubt over it, the rejection, being an informed decision.

While it has to be conceded that there have been and still are several problems with vaccination, its conceptualisation, impacts and risks involved, these have to be weighed against what has actually been achieved. Furthermore, the risks involved in the nothing-but-nature approach have to be critically examined.

Earlier this month, a mother from northern Hưng Yên Province posted a picture of her newborn baby  on a Facebook group page called “Thuận tự nhiên” (Natural Life), which has around 250,000 members. The baby was shown with a plastic bowl holding the placenta that was still connected to the baby’s belly button. The mother said she was following the “lotus birth” method, giving birth at home without doctors or nurses, and presumably, no midwives. The post that accompanied the photo said the umbilical cord would be left uncut till it naturally separates at the umbilicus six days later.

There’s more. After the natural childbirth and its attendant risks, the “natural” people also take their belief in breastfeeding and breast milk to the extreme. In their eyes, breast milk is a panacea for all infant ills. The founder of the group, who claims to have international lactation consultation certificates, often provides advice to other mothers while answering questions posted on the group’s Facebook page. The information she provides stretches credulity, at least from a modern scientific perspective. For instance, she claims that breast milk can treat heart disease in newborns and that it even allows “a child’s cut thumbs to grow back."

It is not a surprise that people who hold such strong positions, also refuse to have their children vaccinated, fearing their side effects, which includes death.

“Why would we inject poisons into our babies’ bodies”, one of them has asked, and received many nods in agreement.

Before dismissing such statements as cult-like fanaticism, the rational, reasonable response would be to examine and re-examine available evidence on which they are based.

For instance, is homebirth safe? The answer depends on where it happens.

In Canada, studies have shown that in carefully selected populations, there is no difference between the number of babies who die at home or in the hospital. The situation similar is the Netherlands, where homebirths account for 16 per cent of the total number of births.

However, in the US, yes, a so-called developed country lik the US, things are very different. Figures from Oregon state in 2012 found the the death rate for babies in planned home births with midwives was about seven times that of births in hospitals. A reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from this is that homebirth is a process fraught with risk.

Those in the nothing but nature movement might find it convenient to imagine a glorious past, but the truth is that the rate of early deaths and neonatal deaths, as also maternal deaths, was much higher until several decades ago.

Let’s just take the year 1990 for example: the rate of neonatal deaths was 59 per every 1,000 babies, asnd the maternity death rate was 233 per every 100,000 cases. With the achievement of the healthcare sector using technology and modern medicine, these rates reduced correspondingly to 18 and 54 in 2015. This is irrefutable evidence of a “modern miracle.”

We cannot ignore the impact of mass vaccination campaigns of the past all over the world. It has led to the virtual disappearance of several infectious diseases, beginning with small pox.

The evidence is also that in countries without efficient vaccination programmes, the all but extinct diseases continue to kill children and adults.

While the risks inherent in vaccinations, some of which have come to light recently in Viet Nam, cannot be denied, the approval of vaccines is a long, stringent process.

Last November, a 16-day-old baby was hospitalised in Hà Nội with her eyes in critical condition, after her mother used breast milk to treat her eyesores. The poor baby was almost blinded. The mother admitted that she was following a tip shared on Facebook.

It seems that a section of people have resorted to Facebook and other social media the way people have been using pharmacists and drugstores instead of doctors.

This is no way to settle the vaccination question. Parents have a choice, but they have to ensure that it is an informed decision, keeping in mind that they bear ultimate responsibility for how their children are affected by their choices.

We know that the number of encephalitis and whooping cough cases, diseases that are mostly preventable by vaccination, are on the rise in Việt Nam.

During the Jan-May period last year, 119 cases of whooping cough were recorded, with two children killed by the disease. A large number of the patients were found to have had no vaccination or insufficient vaccinations.

Similarly, while children are expected to get encephalitis vaccinations, 21 infections were recorded in June 2017, and many of the patients in critical conditions had not been vaccinated.

Today across Europe and America, measles outbreaks, once on the verge of extinction thanks to widespread vaccination, have become endemic again.

Before the measles vaccine was introduced, nine out of every 10 kids would contract the disease before 15. Two million people died every year.

Europe recorded some 21,000 cases last year, according to the World Health Organisation, which is nearly four times as many cases in the previous year. The countries worst affected were Romania, Italy, and Ukraine, which each recorded about 5,000 cases. The WHO reckons this is due to a decline in routine immunization, low vaccination rates in marginalized groups, interruption in vaccine supplies, or lack of adequate disease surveillance.

Anti-vaccine parents often refer to studies showing the fatal effects of vaccines, citing, for example, one by Andrew Wakefield, who released a paper linking the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to the onset of autism. But do they know that in 2010, an ethics review board found that Wakefield had falsified the data in his report, causing an immediate retraction of his original paper and revocation of his medical license?

All parents want the best for their babies, but their decision not to vaccinate their children has to be based on scientific evidence and be aware that it can do more damage than good. If only ten babies are not vaccinated, the risk of the community suffering from some disease epidemics is much higher. 

The Vietnamese Government has been coming down hard on advertising-based choices made by mothers to feed their children formula milk instead of breast milk.

Stephen Hawking once said “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge". 

The illusion of knowledge can, and has led to fanatic beliefs. We should act before the beliefs of the “let nature take its course” community descend into extremism and fanaticism. — VNS