The Language Factor: Lessons for the 11th Ebola Outbreak on Adapting to the Language Needs of Communities

Translators Without Borders
Publication language
Date published
25 Jan 2021
Research, reports and studies
Disaster preparedness, resilience and risk reduction, Disasters, Epidemics & pandemics, Host Communities, Health, Humanitarian Principles, Two-way communication
Democratic Republic of Congo
Translators without Borders, CLEAR Global

This report offers lessons from responses to the 11th Ebola virus disease (EVD) outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 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.

Key findings of this report include:

  • 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.
Translators Without Borders