Monday, October 06, 2014

On the Atlantic Council's "Combating the Ebola Outbreak"

Last Thursday, 2 October 2014, the Atlantic Council's Africa Center hosted an expert panel discussion on "Combating the Ebola Outbreak" in Washington, DC. Chaired by the Center's director, Dr. J. Peter Pham, the panel dealt with current efforts to address the crisis and longer-term considerations. (The full presentation, including presentations and Q&A, can be heard via a video link.)

From a review of the audio of the discussion, I'd like to highlight three areas where the issue of language was implicitly or, in one case, explicitly mentioned. Keep in mind that West Africa, including the three countries currently experiencing the epidemic - Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea - is a multilingual region, so this is a very practical issue.

The first area was that of public education, which necessarily involves choice of language(s) for communication and development of materials. Panelist Donald Shriber, Deputy Director for Policy and Communication of the CDC's Center for Global Health referred in his comments to "health promotion and health communication, which means getting culturally appropriate messages out to people through trusted messengers." Language might be included under "culturally appropriate messages," and accuracy of messaging whatever the language would be implied - and both are arguably as important as cultural appropriateness (language and culture are dual considerations in localization, for instance) and trusted messengers (who one would hope would be able to convey clear, accurate, and consistent information in all languages used). As mentioned on a previous posting on this blog, the CDC has produced radio spots about ebola in 11 African languages of the region.

The issue of public education came up again in the Q&A period in comments by former ambassador Robert Gribbin, who also served a short term recently as chargé d'affaires in the US Embassy in Sierra Leone. Amb. Gribbin mentioned that "There's been a massive education effort on the part of the [Sierra Leone] government, with its international partners to teach people about ebola, about what to do. ... And people are really quite aware I think of the immediacy of this ..." A natural question would be how the various languages of the country were used - as presumably they must have been in a "massive" public education push. It is worth remembering in this context that the US Embassy/Freetown has five Sierra Leonean language translations of an English language notice about ebola available on its website.

Second, there were references to training of health workers, notably by Anne Witkowsky, US Department of Defense's (DoD) Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability and Humanitarian Affairs.Ms. Witkowsky mentioned the DoD's plan to train up to 500 health workers per week. Here too, language becomes a big issue, both for training health workers, who may not have high levels in English or French, and who in any event, will have to communicate complex messages to patients and communities in their first languages. Will there be any training in or about messaging in various key languages where the health workers will ultimately work, or will it be assumed that the workers fully understand and can accurately interpret/translate on their own? (The latter is often the case in agricultural extension and development work in Africa - see the discussion and links here.)

And third, the issue of communication about complex topics came up in remarks by Col. Nelson Michael (M.D., Ph.D.), Director of the US Military HIV Research Program at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Referencing a UN publication on guidelines for good participatory practice,* he discussed the importance of community engagement in eventual vaccine trials, meaning that "the community is involved during the entire lifecycle of the project, from sitting on study teams to actually thinking about the designs of these studies to make sure that when volunteers are given informed consent that they have tests of understanding that their own native language is used so there's a contact and transparency between research indivduals and between those volunteers." Language here is explicit in the case of informed consent, but would also be important in the other participatory aspects.

* I believe the publication is: "Guidelines on Citizens’ Engagement for Development Management and Public Governance," Development Management Branch, Division for Public Administration and Development Management, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, March 2011

NB- Various minor additions and corrections after posting. Ambassador Gribbin's name corrected, with apologies for the error and thanks to Dr. Pham  (7 Oct 2014).

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