Taking It Viral

"You have to use the media, the methods, that fit your audience."

The difficulty of providing clear, accessible information about communicable diseases might seem like a problem for noble-minded development workers in foreign countries. But even though it’s primarily an issue for minority language groups, it’s important to remember that medical messaging is a problem that can affect anyone, anywhere.

We wrote recently about the challenge of communicating good medical information in the midst of the ongoing ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo to people who are culturally and linguistically hindered from receiving it. Ebola is terrifying, but most of us will never travel to the D.R.C., and may have a hard time connecting those issues with our everyday reality. In our post “When Literacy Saves Lives,” we discussed how problems with the sharing of medical information with immigrants at our southern border who do not speak Spanish can lead to serious consequences. But again, the southern border crisis is one that most of us keep at arm's reach—responding to it only through shared memes on social media or as a political talking point.

We have to remember, though, that in a pluralistic society such as ours there will always be minority language communities in need of quality medical information—a message brought home recently by the measles outbreak in New York, and an attempt by the New York State Department of Health to stem that tide in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities.

A report from CNN shows that information sheets written in English and Yiddish and distributed to more than 45,000 homes in those communities had numerous translation errors, leading to a message that was garbled at best and incomprehensible at worst.


While the CNN article goes on to quote some members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community who seemed inclined to quickly forgive the garbling of their language, others pointed out that an inability to provide carefully translated information makes it easy for community members to doubt the veracity of the medical information being conveyed.

Employees at the New York State Department of Health can’t be expected to know the languages of all the groups they interact with, and it’s hard to blame them for the failure of the supposedly professional translation service they hired in this instance. But the bungled translation shines yet another spotlight on the importance of language for good medical messaging.

While our focus at SIL LEAD is on serving minority language communities in far off countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, this poor Yiddish translation brings home the fact that this is a global issue, and that when bad medical information is unfortunately all to common it is incumbent on us to work extra hard to ensure that good information is communicated clearly.