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Global Health Pandemic Highlights Multilingual Communication Needs

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Governments across the world struggle to communicate the latest updates about the Swine Flu (recently re-branded as "H1N1 Flu"). Yet, millions of members of minority language groups are unable to understand the government advisories that warn them to use antibacterial hand gel and wear surgical masks. Public health seems like a pretty risky thing to allow to get lost in translation.

The benefits of multilingual communication - for both the prevention of and response to public health emergencies - are clear. In 2008, an interpreter for the Mayo Clinic thwarted a potential public health outbreak when she noticed that many of her Spanish-speaking patients were reporting similar symptoms and happened to work in a local pork processing plant. As a result, the source of the illness was pinpointed and the spread of the disease was prevented.

Public health is no longer just a local or national issue - it's a global issue. As we are witnessing with the current Swine Flu alert, diseases can easily cross borders. Communication across national boundaries requires adequate - and reliable - multilingual support. Public health emergencies require quick, accurate communications across a wide array of media, and in nearly every country, across many languages.

But simply translating information isn't enough. Many limited English proficient groups get their news from ethnic media sources, especially in-language resources, so communicating key health and preparedness messages requires knowledge of how to spread the word in other languages, and across numerous cultures. Here are some of our favorite resources related to disaster response across culturally and linguistically diverse populations:

The World Health Organization has information on swine flu available on its website, which is available in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.
The Refugee Health Information Network has easy access (including split-screen viewing) to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's swine flu advisory in Amharic, Arabic, Bosnian, Burmese, Croatian, English, Farsi, Hmong, Kirundi, Pashto, Russian, Serbian, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, and Vietnamese.
The Boston Public Health Commission has swine flu information available on its website in many of the city's most commonly spoken languages, including Chinese, Haitian Creole, Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
The Office of Minority Health of the Department of Health and Human Services in the United States has developed several web-based trainings, including one for emergency preparedness and disaster response. Their free e-learning modules are available to anyone - health care professionals, emergency responders, and even volunteers - no matter where they live in the world.
The field of disaster preparedness and response is already complex, so adding multiple languages into the mix is an especially difficult challenge for many public sector agencies. The best advice we can offer? Government agencies should form relationships with professional associations for translators and interpreters, local language service providers, and consultants/specialists who can provide information and insight that will help them build the human and media networks to get their emergency communications distributed quickly and accurately across diverse populations.

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