Battling Zika Virus with a Language Barrier

The United States and Brazil are conducting a joint study to confirm the link between Zika virus and microcephaly. But without interpreters, the language barrier is one of the biggest challenges encountered by U.S. health officials.

The Zika Virus Scare

zika mosquito vectorAs Zika Virus continues to spread throughout Latin America, Mexico, and the Caribbean, U.S. health officials want to confirm the association between pregnant mothers infected with the virus and their babies born with microcephaly. Cases of the virus have been confirmed in 24 countries with the largest number reported in Brazil. The mosquito vector which spreads the virus to humans, Aedes aegypti, is present throughout the Americas. Although infection is primarily associated with symptoms of fever, rash, and joint pain, the latest connection between microcephaly and infection in pregnant women has created a fear that spread of the virus could cause a serious outbreak.

Zika Virus | U.S. CDC Goes to Brazil

cdc in brazilIn response to the crisis, officials from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have joined forces with Brazil’s Health Ministry to determine whether Zika Virus is directly responsible for the increasing number of babies born with this birth defect. Since October, fifty six cases of microcephaly have been confirmed in Paraiba, Brazil alone – a northeastern state about 1,500 miles north of Rio de Janeiro and where the largest number of cases have been reported.

Zika Virus | Subject Enrollment

mothers with infantsEight teams of American and Brazilian health workers are conducting a controlled study together. The plan is to enroll over 100 babies with microcephaly and their mothers, and compare them with those that don’t have the condition born at about the same time. All of the subjects are from Paraiba state, where the outbreak has had the greatest impact. One of Brazil’s poorest states, health workers must go door to door talking to families about the study. The researchers need to ask a lot of questions, take blood samples from both mothers and babies, and run lab tests. Workers must ask that mothers fill out a detailed questionnaire, everything from where they get their drinking water to if they used mosquito repellent during pregnancy. All of this will require good communication.

The Language Barrier

zika virusOne of the biggest challenges encountered by U.S. health workers is the language barrier. Portuguese is the most spoken language in the region. But without an interpreting services provider, health workers are finding that linguistic barriers are making their efforts challenging at best. Language proved to be an issue even during the training session when team members resorted to pantomime while practicing what they will say to potential subjects. One of the critical factors will be to alleviate the concerns of parents whose infants are participating in the study in order to gain their trust. The challenge for the U.S. health workers will be to overcome both cultural and linguistic barriers.


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