Five-year-old Ashya King was taken to Spain for treatment for a brain tumour, against the advice of doctors in Britain. On Monday, a judge in Madrid has ordered that the boy’s parents remain in custody for 72 hours. (Interpol/Associated Press)
The parents of a five-year-old boy with a brain tumour say they want to give him the best chance to live with a revolutionary new treatment they learned about on the internet. Their British hospital says the boy has a 70 per cent to 80 per cent chance of survival with the treatment it offers, and it’s the parents who are putting the child at risk.
Britain has become riveted by the case of little Ashya King, whose parents plucked him from a hospital in southern England and fled to Spain amid a dispute over treatment — with British justice close on the family’s heels.
Brett and Naghemeh King signalled Monday they would fight extradition, defying doctors and the legal system as a British court considers a ruling on forcing the family to come home.
“I’m not coming back to England if I cannot give him the treatment I want, which is proper treatment,” Brett King said as he cradled the child in a video posted before his arrest. “I just want positive results for my son.”
The Kings are seeking a new type of proton beam radiation therapy that typically costs at least $33,000. The Southampton General Hospital says that more conventional methods have a very high chance of succeeding. It said that while proton beam therapy is effective for some tumours, in other cases “there isn’t evidence that this is a beneficial treatment.”
The family fled to Spain in hopes of selling a property to obtain enough cash for treatment in the Czech Republic or the United States. Police pursued them. Prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for an offence of cruelty to a person under the age of 16 years, hours after the Southampton hospital realized their patient was gone.
British authorities travelled to Spain to question the couple. Assistant Chief Constable Chris Shead, of Hampshire Constabulary, has said he would rather be criticized for being “proactive” rather than trying to explain later “why a child has lost his life.”
The hospital’s medical director, Dr. Michael Marsh, issued a statement late Monday saying that the treatment was discussed with the family.
He put the chances Ashya surviving under the hospital’s treatment at 70 per cent to 80 per cent after five years. He expressed sadness that communication with the family had broken down and that “for whatever reason they have lost confidence in us.”
Unprecedented case raises ethics questions
Ethicists say the case is unprecedented, and has raised questions of how much power authorities should have in interfering with the will of parents in questions of life and death. While there have been many previous legal tussles over terminal illness issues, there have been few regarding questions over which treatment should be followed.
Even Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman weighed in on Monday, saying people all over the country have been moved by the family’s plight.
‘So under that such a cruel system, I decided to start looking at the proton beam myself.’- Brett King, father of Ashya
These kinds of cases normally result from a communication breakdown, said Penney Lewis, professor of law and a medical ethics expert at King’s College London. She said parents are typically only prosecuted when they fail to engage with the medical care entirely and the child dies as a result.
Yet Lewis said that when the hospital-family relationship does break down, it does not have to end like this. The parents or hospital could have sought mediation instead with a third party. “Not everything has to end up in court,” she said.
Television images have shown the Kings being loaded into a Spanish squad car in handcuffs. When asked by the BBC on their views, the couple told the reporter they are just trying to help their child.
The family has criticized Britain’s health care system, saying Ashya has a serious tumour that needs an advanced treatment option and that it wasn’t being made available to him.
Parents took son away ‘out of their love for him’
In a statement posted on YouTube before their arrest, the family took its case to the public after seeing their names and photographs posted on the internet. Brett King said he feared being put under a restraining order after he disputed his doctors’ advice, citing research he had gleaned on the internet.
“I realized I can’t speak to the oncologists at all because if I actually asked anything or gave them any doubt that I wasn’t in full accord with them, they were just going to get a protection order, which meant in his deepest, darkest hour I wouldn’t be there to look after him, neither would my wife,” he said. “They would prevent us from entering the ward. So under that such a cruel system, I decided to start looking at the proton beam myself.”
Proton beam therapy is a targeted type of radiation treatment that increases the chance of killing cancer cells by sending a higher dose of radiation directly to the tumour.
Unlike other types of cancer treatment, it doesn’t indiscriminately kill surrounding healthy tissue, so there could be fewer long term effects. But experts say the treatment isn’t suitable for children whose tumours are too advanced and need a broader dose of radiation.
In Britain, proton beam therapy is currently only available to treat certain patients with cancer in their eyes. Other countries, including the U.S., Switzerland and Japan, also use proton beam therapy to treat cancers of the spinal cord, brain, prostate, lung and those that affect children.
Britain’s health department announced in 2011 it will build two treatment centres to make proton beam therapy available in London and Manchester from 2018. Until those facilities open, Britain will pay for patients eligible for the therapy to go to the U.S. and Switzerland for treatment.
The couple are both Jehovah’s Witnesses, but there has been no indication they raised any religious issue about the boy’s treatment.
“This has nothing to do with parents abandoning their child or with religious beliefs,” the parents’ Spanish lawyer, Juan Isidro Fernandez said, adding they brought Ashya to Spain “out of their love for him.”