The Linguistic Battle Against Ebola

Ebola & the Language Gap

The most effective step in preventing the spread of Ebola is to stifle its spread within affected African countries. A major factor in limiting the outbreak in West Africa is disseminating accurate information about protection from the disease and clearing up myths related to the epidemic. Unfortunately, the multitude of spoken languages in West Africa means that a vast amount of people in the affected areas do not have access to information they can understand.

Misconceptions & Myths

Though experimental drug treatments and vaccines are in the process of being deployed, there is currently no single cure. Avoiding infection is, therefore, the primary goal, as it is both safer and less costly than treatment. Since Ebola is mainly spread through contact with bodily fluids, the World Health Organization advises limiting close contact with infected individuals as well as regular hand-washing and prompt burial of the dead.

Even so, UNICEF reported in September that in Sierra Leone, nearly 1/3 of the people believe Ebola comes from mosquitoes, or is airborne, and almost 2/3 could not identify ways to prevent the disease. Questions posed to health workers responding to Guinea’s Ebola hotline further reflect the belief in myths: “Will eating raw onions once a day for three days protect me from Ebola?” ,”Is it true that a daily intake of condensed milk can prevent infection with Ebola?” Some fake remedies can actually cause bleeding from the eyes and mouth or worse while offering absolutely no protection. Others, such as cocktails made from kola nuts or hot saltwater baths, are dangerous in that they provide a false sense of immunity.

Translating the Message

Clearly more needs to be done to inform people. Localization and translation services are therefore a crucial step in containing the disease. English-language posters and billboards in Liberia reach only 20% of the population and even less in Sierra Leone. It is also vital that authorities earn the trust of locals, especially when authorities urge locals to abandon burial traditions so as to limit contact with the dead.

Such warnings are far more likely to be heeded when communicated in the local tongue. This is easier said than done, considering that there are 522 native languages in Nigeria alone. This can be somewhat surmounted by focusing on Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo, the most widely-understood Nigerian languages, but even these are unintelligible to nearly half the Nigerian population.

Digital Community Outreach

The spreading of information via electronic means is one way to overcome some of these obstacles. Major phone operators in Nigeria, such as MTN Group Ltd. and Bharti Airtel Ltd., are already sending out mass text alerts and digital media companies, like Big Cabal Media in Lagos, are putting together websites that provide accurate information. Big Cabal Media’s site, ebolafacts.com, updates and responds to various issues in an effort to eliminate the myths about Ebola.

Misunderstandings have resulted in a general fear of foreign health care workers. This problem extends from patients to their families and individuals that could otherwise be protected from infection. While recent developments -Canada’s Ebola vaccine in clinical trials and a newly FDA approved diagnostic tool – renew hope for the future, communication barriers must be addressed, along with efforts to eliminate the myths.

Top 7 Ebola myths in West Africa

  1. If you go to a clinic you’ll be given an injection that will lead to a quick death.
  2. Routine blood tests and vaccinations are a campaign to infect children with Ebola.
  3. Ebola can be cured by home remedies.
  4. Governments have fabricated Ebola to deflect attention from scandals or depopulate rebellious provinces.
  5. Health personnel and NGO staff are the ones spreading the disease.
  6. Body parts are being harvested in the isolation units.
  7. Ebola isn’t real.

 

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Sources:

Bloomberg.com

WHO Ebola Myths

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