Aug 15 2013

Spontaneous Baby Combustion

News reports are coming out of India of a “rare medical case” involving a newborn infant who apparently spontaneously bursts into flames. This has occurred four times so far. The baby is now in the hospital being treated for these burns.

The International Business Times, with a headline declaring a “mystery baby,” reports:

Rahul, a native of Tindivanam, Tamil Nadu was admitted to Kilpauk Medical College and Hospital on Thursday for burns reportedly caused by a rare medical phenomenon known as Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) wherein a person catches fire due to emission of inflammable substances through the body.

They do contain some token skepticism, but then go on to discuss the “controversy” over SHC and the various theories about how it might occur.  The earliest reports of this case did not even contain the token skepticism, which seems to have crept into the later reports.

Some of the doctors treating the baby seem to take the SHC theory as a given – a rare medical condition. They are seeking to explain how a baby can spontaneously burst into flame. The Daily Mail quotes one doctor as saying.

‘We will carry out tests to find out the kind of gases generated by the baby.’

I think she meant “if” the baby is generating gas. Others speculate that the baby has inflammable sweat. These are nothing but wild speculations, but they are presented as serious medical hypotheses, while SHC is presented as a real medical condition.

The media has apparently been waiting for medical tests that they somehow felt might shed light on the case. As far as I can tell, these were nothing but routine blood tests, perhaps with some specific tests thrown in, to see if there was anything unusual. Unsurprisingly, these tests came back normal. 

At least some of the doctors at the hospital where the baby is being treated understand that SHC is a “hoax theory,” as they are calling it. That is true enough. I have written about SHC previously – there are no confirmed cases and no plausibility to the phenomenon. A typical alleged case involves an infirm overweight individual with an obvious external source of flame, such as a lit cigarette. This is one of those cases when a non-mystery is treated as if it is a mystery and then “explained” with wild pseudoscientific speculation.

Given that the SHC explanation is nonsensical, the most likely (unfortunately) explanation remaining is child abuse. There are apparently no other signs of child abuse other than the burns in this case. However, there is one standard and accepted test for child abuse presenting as an alleged medical condition – removal from the caregivers and observation.

When a child is becoming repeatedly ill or injured without explanation, the child is kept under observation in a hospital setting. If the child gets better, or there are no further incidents, that supports the hypothesis of child abuse. This doesn’t prove it, but it is consistent with abuse and highly suspicious.

My recommendation for the doctors of little Rahul is to keep the boy in the hospital for a long time, until he is fully recovered. His parents claim that he has had four episodes of SHC in 2.5 months. so keep him for a couple months in the hospital. If there are no further episodes, perhaps the child needs to go to foster care.

The only other possibility is that the child is catching fire because of some source of flame in his room. That should be investigated as well, and should be easy to rule out.

This is a sad case, but is yet another example of how pseudoscience can make a bad situation much worse. Science and reason at least has the opportunity of doing the right thing.

It’s also another example of a massive media fail. Articles range from totally credulous to token skepticism. I have not even seen false balance yet, although some are inching in that direction. I have not seen any appropriately skeptical mainstream media treatment. That is a systemic problem with mainstream news.

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