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Pricks of conscience

Published:Sunday | October 3, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Carolyn Cooper, Contributor

I've long come to the conclusion that regular injections of religion in early childhood provide excellent immunisation against spiritual infection in later life. Unprotected children become vulnerable adults who are easily seduced into joining all sorts of weird cults. Going to 'church' - whatever the religion - builds up your immune system.

If you grow up with sacred stories about good and bad angels who live in heaven and hell respectively, you're not likely to get carried away by fictional Hollywood films about extraterrestrial beings. Religiously inoculated adults don't tend to see flying saucers. You've been saved from night visions by repeated injections of 'ordinary' faith.

Unfortunately, earthly vaccination is not always as reliable as the heavenly kind. Last August, the Rastafari Millennium Council put on a symposium at which I learnt a startling fact. Some Rastafari are quite sceptical about the presumed value of medical vaccination. And they feel persecuted by inflexible government policies that prevent unvaccinated children from attending state-run schools.

Rastafari are in excellent company on this issue. George Bernard Shaw, the irreverent Irish playwright, once declared, "As well consult a butcher on the value of vegetarianism as a doctor on the worth of vaccination." This witticism would certainly resonate with Rastafari for whom vegetarianism is a central principle of their 'livity'.

Compulsory vaccination is quite a contentious matter. Although the practice of vaccination is now accepted as gospel, there are non-believers who question its power to save. The American lobbyist Rick Rollins blames the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination for his son's autism.

Like Shaw, Rollins uses a clever analogy to challenge received wisdom: "Asking the public-health community to investigate the role of vaccines in the development of autism is like asking the tobacco industry to investigate the link between lung cancer and smoking."

Conspiracy theorists

Even medical doctors offer their dissenting voices to the public debate on vaccination. Dr Robert Mendelsohn is the author of two provocative books, Confessions of a Medical Heretic and How to Raise a Healthy Child ... In Spite of Your Doctor. He highlights the tricky business of the economics of vaccination: "For a paediatrician to attack what has become the 'bread and butter' of paediatric practice is equivalent to a priest's denying the infallibility of the pope."

Indeed, the medical profession is a lot like a Masonic lodge. It's a secret society that excludes the uninitiated. So doctors often close ranks against ordinary citizens who challenge the authority of the experts. Parents who have reservations about vaccinating their children are made to feel like conspiracy theorists. Turncoat doctors who express doubt about the safety of giving numerous vaccinations in quick succession to young children are cast out of the fold.

Rastafari don't object to immunisation on principle. Instead, they believe that more emphasis should be placed on natural means. They argue that there is good evidence to support the claim that breastfeeding provides protection against a range of diseases such as meningitis, whooping cough, tetanus and polio.

It's vaccination that's the problem. The origin of the word confirms one of the major objections: the use of products derived from animals. Vaccination comes from the Latin word 'vacca', meaning cow. In fact, the first vaccine was developed from the cowpox virus.

So how do Rastafari get around the problem of compulsory vaccination? One solution is enrolling children in private schools that tend to be less rigid about compliance than government institutions. But this not a viable solution for many parents who simply cannot afford the high school fees.

The Ganja Commission

Half a century ago, the Report on the Rastafari Movement in Kingston, Jamaica was published by the University College of the West Indies (UCWI). In a letter to the premier, Norman Manley, the principal, Arthur Lewis, warned that "The movement is large, and in a state of great unrest. Its problems require priority treatment."

Since those days of 'great unrest', the Rastafari faith has gained respectability. The mass movement is no longer dismissed as a cult but recognised globally as a religion. Some Rastafari beliefs and cultural practices have become mainstream, particularly eating 'ital'. The ritual smoking of ganja has not. Incidentally, I wonder what has become of the findings of the Ganja Commission. I hope the report isn't wrapped in a 'rizzla'.

It is true that in the 1960s suspicious parents might have wished for a vaccine to immunise their children against the seductions of Rastafari. The dreaded lament, 'Guess who turn Rasta?' was a frequent cry. And you became Rasta in Jamaican, not English. Turning to Africa meant that you had turned away from civilisation to savagery. Dreadlocks were a clear sign of knots in the head and the tongue.

These days, dreadlocks make a beautiful fashion statement, as was demonstrated with such elegance by Zahra Redwood, Miss Jamaica Universe 2008. She didn't do nearly as well as Yendi Phillipps in the international competition but all of Jamaica is still very proud of her. She showed the world the spectacular beauty of her knotty head: inside and out.

Conscientious objection to vaccination ought to be given 'priority treatment' by the Ministry of Education. After all, the right to education is as legitimate as the presumed right to vaccination. Parents shouldn't have to choose between the education and the health of their children. That dilemma should prick our collective conscience.

Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a teacher of English and an advocate of Jamaican language rights. Visit her bilingual blog, Jamaica Woman Tongue, at Feedback may be sent to