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 Multilingual communication in the fight against outbreaks

When the swine flu outbreak hit Mexico in April 2009, the public reaction was timid and indifferent. After one week, the outbreak reached the United States then Canada. By the end of April, 11 countries were affected by this new “deadly” virus. A status of confusion invaded the world.

The new emerging global threat occupied the media headlines across the globe. The fact that its name has changed three times (influenza-like illness, swine flu, influenza A(H1N1))* in less than one week shows how "new" this monster is. The frenetic public started storming internet sites for potential news.

Specialized web sites have encountered severe technical difficulties due to the huge amount of traffic. Some sites have witnessed millions of hits per day, coming from the four corners of the globe and causing them to crash for hours.

Not a single person of these millions of anxious people came to these sites for a vaccine shot, to buy a 3M mask or a packet of Tamiflu. They came for only one thing: information on this unknown alien, which was about to infect half of the world population! They needed to understand what is behind those bold headlines on swine flu.

After spending only ten minutes reading about this new threat, visitors to the concerned web sites realize that this pandemic is being fought against more by “words” than by “deeds”; as they see no vaccination campaigns, no masks, no travel restrictions – the population is much more involved in this battle than the health authorities. Winning the fight depends on how much people are prepared and armed against this enemy. Their "knowledge" about the virus - its severity, how it is transmitted, the symptoms that appear on infected people, and the vulnerability of the population – is not only the key to contain the virus, but also the key to appease the exaggerated psychological pressure and fear caused by the media. The more people know about the virus the more calm they become in dealing with it. Would the Spanish flu kill 50 million people in 1918 had the population had access to the right information on how to protect itself?

If we all agree that this pandemic can be contained only with public awareness and strict compliance to health authorities’ guidelines and instructions, we must agree then that a powerful communication tool and a solid platform are needed for that purpose: language and the internet. This combination is becoming the most effective communication and knowledge sharing method.

Back to our swine flu virus, which is now called influenza A(H1N1). The usage of the term “swine flu” is not very exotic and not very distant; in 1976, for instance, President Ford ordered a nationwide vaccination program to prevent a swine flu epidemic. The term is therefore present in our recent collective memory. Nevertheless, if you try to search for the English term on the internet, you are lucky if you stumble upon a decent article dated prior to April 2009. And if you try to search for the same term in Arabic, Chinese and even Spanish, I doubt that your returned results will contain any serious material talking about swine flu dated before April 2009. Lack of multilingual information on H1N1 was very obvious.

Right after the outbreak in the United States, the information machines started at full pelt producing materials on swine flu; some of scientific nature, others more of a passionate and theatrical nature. But everything is in English. If you are lucky enough to belong to the 8% of the world’s 6.5 billion inhabitants who can read English, then you are saved – otherwise you have to use your imagination to depict your own version of the virus!

Although many parts of the world were not affected by this new threat, people still wanted to know as much as they can about this monster crawling towards their families, which they believe sooner or later will reach them and they will have to encounter him face to face.

Desperate and helpless in the struggle of finding information on the virus in their own languages, people seek refuge in the free online Machine Translation services to unscramble the huge chunks of English texts here and there surrounding the scary acronym “H1N1”. To discover later, even with poor translation, that there is a big difference between what they have in mind about the virus and reality. Their local authorities may have provided them with basic information about the virus, but in many cases that doesn't go beyond “Wash your hands!”, “Use handkerchief when sneezing!” or “Don’t hug or kiss your neighbour!”

People have the right to serious and scientific information in their languages about serious threats on their lives. Many public health institutions have started publishing multilingual content on swine flu right after the outbreak. But still to know whether this was done as part of a communication and knowledge sharing strategy or as an ad-hoc and unsustainable measure. Whatever the answer may be, it is certain that any piece of information made available about the H1N1 virus in people’s own languages has contributed (and will contribute), in one way or another, to saving lives.

Multilingualism is not a “caprice”; it is a pragmatic and ethical need. Access to knowledge in one’s mother tongue is an undeniable “human right”. International Organizations should lead in this, and should take the languages issue more seriously; they should start dealing with it in a more realistic and practical manner. It is essential to start investing in multilingualism and think of allocating resources for that; they have to empower the people with the knowledge they deserve about matters that can affect the course of their lives and the wellbeing of their communities.

* In July, it was changed for the fourth time to "Pandemic (H1N1) 2009".

 Machine Translation