“Alternative nutrition” takes the life of a baby

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgThings are crazy now for me, both at home and at work. I mean really, really crazy. So crazy that even I, one of the most verbose bloggers out there, am forced to take two or three days off from my little addiction–I mean habit. Consequently, having foreseen that this time would come around these dates, I, Orac, your benevolent (and, above all verbose) blogger have thought of you, my readers. I realize the cries and lamentations that the lack of fresh material inevitably causes. That, I cannot completely obviate. However, I can ease the pain somewhat, and I can do this by continuing my longstanding project of migrating old “classic” (depending upon your definition of the word) posts from the old blog over to the new blog. These are all at least two years old, and thus the vast majority of my readers are unlikely to have seen them. Only the longest-standing readers will recognize these, and it is sincerely hoped that they will enjoy seeing them again. (This particular post first appeared on October 24, 2005.) Truly, Orac is a benevolent blogger, his arrogance, long-windedness, and cantakerousness notwithstanding.

I don’t have a problem with vegans, although I tend to view veganism as more cultish than anything else. Certainly it’s possible for an adult to remain reasonably healthy on a strictly vegan diet, but it’s difficult (and, for me, it would be quite unsatisfying). Other than for strictly religious or moral reasons, I could never understand why vegans will not eat dairy products, which will more easily supply certain needed proteins and fats, or even eggs, which, because they are unfertilized, are not the same as killing animals for food. However, live and let live, I usually say. The only people harmed or helped by vegan diets are those who follow them. Given that, such diets are usually personal choices and none of my business. (If only vegans considered my choice to include meats and seafood in my diet in similar terms.)

My understanding and tolerance end, however, when such diets are imposed on children, whose nutritional needs are different from those of adults. For these and other personal reasons (people who know me will know what those reasons are), stories like this just burn me up. It tells the tale of Woyah Andressohn, a 6-month old who died of starvation because the parents were raw food vegans who insisted on subjecting their children to their nutritional choices:

MIAMI (Court TV) — A 6-month-old infant seemed more like a newborn when paramedics found her gasping for air on the floor of her parents’ home, an emergency responder testified Tuesday in the manslaughter trial of the child’s parents.

Paramedic Fernando Castano told jurors in the case against Joseph and Lamoy Andressohn that he mistook their 7-pound, 22-inch child for a newborn as he attempted to revive her.

Woyah died about 45 minutes later from what a medical examiner later diagnosed as “accidental malnutrition,” according to Castano.

By their own admission to police, the couple kept their five children on a strict diet of uncooked organic foods and juices made from wheatgrass, almonds and coconuts.

During a lunch break in Miami-Dade Criminal Court, the couple snacked on nuts and grains wrapped in leaves of kale, with an apple on the side.

The couple faces 50 years in prison on manslaughter and child endangerment charges if convicted.

Also:

The Andressohns are also standing trial on counts related to Woyah’s four older siblings, who, like her, were found to be smaller than 99 percent of other children their ages, Walker said.

According to other reports, the parents also administered enemas to their children on a regular basis and would whip the older children if they ate the wrong foods. Moreover, they apparently ignored obvious signs of malnutrition. This baby was half the weight she should have been and, according to the paramedics who responded to the call when she was unresponsive, Woyah was “rail thin” with a distended belly, looking “like something you might see in a National Geographic magazine, in an African country or a Third World country.” Any pediatrician who saw the child would have instantly recognized that something was seriously wrong.

I truly can’t understand something like this. Leaving aside the question of whether it’s possible to raise a healthy child on a vegan diet (many vegans will claim it is), there’s an obvious answer for vegan parents who want to raise their children as vegans in the first year of life: breast milk! It’s the perfect food for human infants, providing all the nutrition a child needs, as well as immunoglobulins that aid the child in fighting off disease. It’s the best diet for the first several months of life, bar none, and then can be used to supplement the baby’s diet as solid foods are slowly added. Why on earth couldn’t Woyah have been fed with breast milk, if the parents objected to dairy or meat products? Indeed, pro-vegan websites advocate this very strategy, and, once the child is eating solid food, to supplement with breast milk for as long as feasible and to provide various oils in the diet to make up for the lack of fats in a vegan diet. And, if the mother can’t produce enough milk, there are soy-based formulas that can be used. As some vegans who have commented on the issue have said, to stay healthy eating a raw food vegan diet requires that you really know what you’re doing, particularly with children. It is apparent that the Andressohns did not. It also requires that the child be monitored closely by a pediatrician to make sure that the child is appropriately gaining weight.

People like the Andressohns seem to think that this sort of uncooked vegan diet is somehow more “natural,” but in reality it probably is not. Humans are and have been omnivores for a very long time, and the earliest humans were hunter-gatherers, who lived by scavenging dead animals, hunting, and gathering fruits and vegetables. We have evolved over millions of years to get a certain proportion of our calories from meat, a high energy, high protein source of food (exactly what proportion is a subject of debate, of course). Also, raw vegan diets require quite a bit of First World sanitation to be healthy. In the absence of such sanitation and very clean conditions, they can be a vector for food-borne illnesses. That does not mean a vegan diet is not healthy, but it is probably not any more “natural” than a mixture of meat, fruits, and vegetables, the claims of its adherents notwithstanding.

Not surprisingly, the parents are crying persecution and oppression. The defense is also claiming that the child in actuality died of DiGeorge Syndrome, not starvation, based on the finding of no thymus during the autopsy. While I do not dismiss the possibility that this child had DiGeorge Syndrome, the claim sounds unconvincing because the child did not have the other abnormalities that go along with the syndrome, such as congenital heart defects (such as Tetralogy of Fallot or ventricular septal defect), cleft palate, or facial abnormalities. Also, the pathology report demonstrated the presence of T cells, meaning a thymus must have been present, and prosecutors have pointed out that malnutrition can cause the thymus to shrink greatly. In any case, whether or not the defense has a point can be easily shown by a simple genetic test. If Woyah in fact had DiGeorge Syndrome, a simple fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) should detect the characteristic microdeletion of chromosome 22 (specifically, del 22q11.2). If the deletion is not there, the child did not have DiGeorge Syndrome. Even if the child did have DiGeorge Syndrome, that would not get the parents off the hook, because this syndrome is not associated with malnutrition and the child would not have been “doomed from birth,” as Ellis Rubin, a lawyer for Lamoy Andressohn has claimed.

Also countering this claim of “persecution” is the rather interesting fact that Miami-Dade County Assistant State Prosecutor Herbert Walker is himself a raw food vegan, who is not buying this defense: “A growing child such as baby Woyah needs nutrients to grow. At the end of her life, and a painful life it was, the child had practically lost all her subcutaneous fat and her body was going through auto-cannibalism because she was not getting enough nutrients.” He continued: “The question is, did the parents provide the care necessary for the well-being of their five children?”

I think the answer is obvious.