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The language factor: Lessons for the 11th Ebola outbreak on adapting to the language needs of communities learned during the 10th Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo

DR Congo
Publication date

Previous Ebola virus disease (EVD) outbreaks offer lessons for public health experts responding to the 11th outbreak. This review highlights that responders need to build more trust with the communities they serve. It suggests that language is fundamental to that.

The ninth, 10th and 11th outbreaks of Ebola virus disease have taken place in very rapid succession. Responders to the 11th outbreak need to incorporate lessons learned from previous outbreaks. Translators without Borders (TWB) research and experience supporting risk communicators in outbreak response show they should pay special attention to building trust with communities. The public health experts engaged in the 11th response will be able to draw on progress in treatment and vaccine development, but these advances will only be effective if communities accept them. This report alerts responders to the importance of language in building trust and effective communication with people facing Ebola and other epidemics.

The report is organised in three sections:

Section 1

Focus on the 10th Ebola outbreak: An outline of the evolution of the 10th Ebola outbreak across health zones and language communities.

Section 2

Local languages and localized communication: TWB’s findings on language and communication during the 10th Ebola epidemic in eastern DRC.

Section 3

Lessons and tools for the 11th Ebola outbreak and future epidemics in DRC

What you absolutely need to know:

  • People at risk of contracting Ebola need information to keep themselves and their families safe. Information they don’t understand will not help them. They need clear communication in plain, localized language, in a format they understand, and through channels they trust.

  • In the 10th Ebola outbreak in DRC, the use of French and Swahili, which many local populations did not understand, exacerbated mistrust between health workers and communities, hampering vaccine sensitization efforts.

  • In general, language barriers pose the greatest challenges to women, older people, and other vulnerable groups when it comes to obtaining the information they need.

  • Because language use and information preferences vary by location, further research is needed to determine the most effective approaches to risk communications and community engagement in the 11th Ebola outbreak.