Thursday, September 04, 2014

Ebola and health information in African languages

The alarming ebola epidemic in West Africa - primarily Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, with a few cases in Nigeria - is now into its sixth month and still expanding. There are fears that ebola may explode into urban areas of the region. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) president Dr. Joanne Liu was recently quoted as saying that "the world is losing the battle to contain it," and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Dr. Thomas Frieden was quoted as saying the epidemic is "spiraling out of control."

International and national responses to ebola in West Africa have naturally focused on measures to control its spread and treat patients (as much as can be done, given the high mortality rate and lack of available remedies). Public health education is recognized as an essential element in controlling the epidemic and helping the region's population to understand what the real risks and treatments are.

Ebola education in a multilingual region

West Africa is of course a multilingual region, and any effort to effectively communicate and educate in such an emergency must take account of its multilingual nature, with many languages, limited knowledge of the various countries' official languages (English, French, or Portuguese), and limited literacy in first languages and regional lingua francas. No one language can be relied on to get ebola information and advice to all the people who need it. This means finding ways to translate messages, assure quality in such translations, and provide them in appropriate mixes of text (for posters, scripts) and audio (for national and local radio). It also has longer term implications that I will come back to in a later post on this blog.

This linguistic dimension to public education on ebola in West Africa is recognized on various levels. The CDC for instance had radio spots produced in several languages of the affected area: Pular, several languages of the affected area. (links on language names go to Wikipedia descriptions). A Wellesley College prof, Dr. Donna A. Patterson, suggested that public campaigns should be available in "local languages" in an article entitled "Better Public Education Programs Could Help Stop the Spread of Ebola." And a news item on Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) mentioned translation on on the village level in the west of that country (although without the names of target languages).

The non-governmental organization (NGO), Translators Without Borders (TWB) has coordinated translation of material into Hausa (see image at right). Its collaboration with the Nigerian Institute of Translators and Interpreters might be a good model for international and national collaboration on ebola messaging in African languages.

However, attention to the importance of African first languages and lingua francas for public health education is apparently not a given. In an interview with BBC's World Update, TWB president Lori Thicke pointed out that health NGOs working in rural areas aren't always aware of language issues. Without anyone minimizing their efforts, this is not surprising from what I know of development projects and extension organizations, which tend to deal with "local languages" on an ad hoc basis with interpretation by staff or local people when the need arises (see blog posts on this in context of agriculture in 2007 and 2008).

But it's not just a problem of NGOs in the field. In an interview on the US public television service, PBS, MSF's Dr. Liu referred to the need for clear messaging on ebola issues, but did not mention the challenges of quality translation of such messaging. She likely is well aware of that, but the fact it did not arise in either her statements or the interviewer's (Jeffrey Brown) questions is telling. Voice of America, in an August 20 article about media in West Africa and public education on ebola did not mention anything about languages or translation.

This is not to say that the issue of translation of information on ebola is necessarily easy, but that it is an issue needing attention, especially at higher levels. The kind of volunteer-based translation that TWB facilitates is impressive, as is the less visible daily work on local levels by officials such as discussed in the Côte d'Ivoire item cited above, but it certainly would help to have more resources to support translation and wider coordination of translation efforts (the latter in part because many languages cross borders, meaning potential duplication of effort and differences in wording).

Building resources for short- and long-term

Another important need for dealing with ebola in the immediate future and in years to come, as well as for improving individual and public health in general, is to collect, record, and compile medical and health education material in African languages. Aside from providing reference material for the future, it also should help avoid having to start translations from scratch each time a public health emergency arises.

Fortunately there is a volunteer effort to achieve this sort of outcome: the Wikipedia-based Medical Translation Project, which collaborates with TWB. An example of their work is an article on ebola in Hausa entitled "Ƙwayoyin cuta na Ebola" on the Hausa-language edition of Wikipedia

I plan to post more on this project later.

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