Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP) is a form of child abuse that has a long-lasting physical and emotional impact on the child. Unlike normal child abuse where the parent is solely responsible for inflicting the harm, MSBP parents are extremely adept at tricking professionals into inflicting harm as well. As a result, the victim is usually subjected to years of abuse from the parent and from the professionals who intervene in the interest of helping the child.
Munchausen syndrome by proxy was first described by pediatrician Roy Meadow in England. When the syndrome was first uncovered, physicians believed it was very rare. However, medical professionals now believe that about 1200 new cases of MSBP occur every year . In the U.S. alone, experts believe that approximately 600 new cases of the syndrome occur each year, with about one in every seven cases resulting in the death of the child.
In order to win sympathy for themselves, Munchausen’s parents have been known to poison or suffocate their children to the point of creating a medical emergency . Other parents give their children unneeded medication to bring about false symptoms of a medical condition . According to psychiatrist Dr. Herbert Schreier, Munchausen mothers can easily dupe doctors into putting children through unnecessary medical procedures or surgeries. In one case a child was subjected to over 40 operations before the doctors finally figured out that it was the mother and not the child that was ill.
Munchausen parents are extremely skilled in fooling and manipulating medical professionals as well as other figures of authority. While these parents appear to be highly concerned about the welfare of the child, taped video surveillance has revealed they interact very differently when left alone with the child. Approximately 95 percent of all adults diagnosed with the syndrome are women.
It is extremely difficult to diagnose Munchausen syndrome by proxy given that the parents appear to be normal and highly concerned about the child’s welfare. In one case, a six-year old boy was hospitalized at a major university in the gastroenterology unit. The child had a long history of various gastrointestinal problems. The boy underwent a variety of medical treatments, including biopsies, yet the only medical condition uncovered was mild gastroesophageal reflux. During one six-month hospitalization, the boy exhibited symptoms that made no medical sense. During the same stay, the boy stopped breathing twice, both of which were characterized as life-threatening events.