Language, cultural confusion fuel Ebola fear
When the Chinese community in New York City developed a sudden and irrational fear of Ebola-carrying salmon last week, New York Hospital Queens fielded the strange calls and quashed the rumor. You can't get Ebola from the fish, hospital staff assured the callers.
Somehow, the Chinese government's ban in September on the import of whole Norwegian salmon for an alleged bout of a fish disease called infectious salmon anemia got lost in translation on its way to the United States.
"It turns out something happening to the fish is being called 'the Ebola of the salmon industry.' People were scared," hospital spokeswoman Camela Morrissey says.
New York is one of many multicultural U.S. cities scrambling to get accurate Ebola information to residents who speak dozens of languages before rumor and panic spread. New York Hospital Queens conducted its latest news briefing in Chinese, English and Spanish and offers content on its website in four languages.
While getting such messages out quickly is nothing new, experts say the multilingual efforts can be tricky business. The efforts are underfunded, dangerously slow and prone to error, increasing chances that a mistranslated word will fuel a rumor, cause a cultural faux pas or induce unnecessary panic, experts say.
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"The No. 1 challenge for communication is cultural trust," says Bill Gentry, director of disaster preparedness at the University of North Carolina's Gillings School of Global Public Health.
In North Carolina, health officials are trying to build trust with non-English speaking communities while treating and preventing enterovirus which causes severe respiratory illness.
"It takes time to build a trust of government or health care," Gentry says. "For fast-moving events like Ebola, we don't have that luxury."
"We need funds, resources and outreach that don't just come at the moment of crisis," SteelFisher says. "It can be too late by the time the crisis hits."
Dallas County Health and Human Service officials gradually issued Ebola fact sheets in 13 languages, including Arabic, Burmese, Farsi, Hindi, Nepali, Oromo and Russian after Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian visiting family in Texas, was diagnosed with Ebola and quarantined in a Dallas hospital.
First, workers analyzed the community to see which languages are spoken, Health and Human Services Director Zachary Thompson said. Then translators for each language recreated the Ebola fact sheets, he said. The whole process took about a week and cost $4,000, he says.
"When responding to a crisis you can't turn around a document in just one day," Thompson says. "It needs to be accurate and it needs to be up-to-date."
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Anne Marie Weiss, president of DFW International Community Alliance , which helps immigrants adjust to life in the United States, says her "heart dropped" when she learned officials distributed an Ebola announcement written in English to residents of a potentially contaminated Dallas apartment complex.
"They don't speak English," Weiss says. "The health department was too slow to translate the documents. It should have happened immediately."
Such services are often given short shrift for lack of funding, Weiss said. Emergency translation programs proposed after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in Vietnamese, Arabic and Khmer never got off the ground, she said.
Outreach to the large Somali community in Minneapolis and St. Paul during a measles outbreak in 2011 went smoothly because public health and city officials already had strong relationships with the community and had developed multilingual campaigns for salmonella and flu, Sara Chute, international health coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Health, said.
Misinformation can spread very quickly, Chute says. "The rumor mill is much more powerful than the facts."