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Medical Translations: Why Language Services Will Be Vital to the Success of Any COVID-19 Vaccine

Medical Translations: Why Language Services Will Be Vital to the Success of Any COVID-19 Vaccine

As 2020 has so effectively illustrated, a pandemic, ruthless and indiscriminate by nature, is capable of wreaking havoc across an entire globe. Multilingual communication has proven crucial in helping to prevent and counter widespread misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. By keeping every citizen properly informed through clear communication in their mother tongue, we can alleviate confusion, and help promote confidence in the production, distribution, and administration of a COVID-19 vaccine. After all, it is through the incredible collaborations of vaccine research and other medical experts worldwide that we can now start to see light at the end of this socially-distanced tunnel.

Medical Translations: Learning from History

Between 1918-1920, the Spanish Influenza ravaged the globe, infecting roughly 500 million people, or around 30% of the world population at the time. The virus killed 50 million people, which  taught humankind a hard lesson: nity and clear communication are the greatest tools at our disposal in the fight against any infectious disease. Since then,  governments have enacted public health policies, established research institutions, and mobilized global task forces. As these institutes grew, it became clear that in order for  research teams, scientists, medical institutions, and universities across the world to collaborate efficiently,  they had to be able to exchange and share data quickly. To achieve this, all relevant data and supporting information needed to be translated to the highest standard with zero room for error.

So, the vital role of medical translation services was born. The subsequent spread of viruses such as SARS-COV-2, H1N1, and Ebola further highlighted the need for organizations like the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and others. These organizations are responsible for researching, analyzing, and sharing data to best protect our lives and livelihoods from future threats to world health. However, as we have seen, these organizations cannot do it alone. Everyone has a role to play in stopping or slowing the spread of pandemics, whether it is by wearing a mask, staying home based on government recommendations, or other measures. With “liberty” also comes great responsibility, both for ourselves and those we interact with, whether friends, family, or strangers.

Learning from Mistakes

In June 2020, an open letter from campaigners to the UK Health Secretary criticized “limited range of languages” available for COVID-19 guidance. It was found that the COVID-19 guidance was translated into 25 languages. While this may seem like a solid amount of languages offered, the reality is that 88 different languages (not including English) are spoken within England and Wales alone. This illustrates the difficulties faced by our US LEP (Limited English Proficient) communities we discussed in the blog ‘Non Profit Translation Services: Protecting our LEP Communities.’ As the article highlights, during the H1N1 flu of 2009, Spanish and Chinese LEPs felt left out of the public conversation, without easy access to reliable health information.

In our modern, multicultural society, it’s particularly imperative to provide accurate translations for LEP communities during the roll out of the COVID-19 vaccine, in order to empower all American residents to make good health choices, assuage fears, and correct misinformation before it becomes too widespread. This responsibility will come down primarily to state and local governments who should understand the linguistic demographics of their regions to ensure the availability of translations (and interpreter support) for each of the languages spoken in their area. The providers that will be administering the vaccine also have a responsibility to have a system in place to deal with the questions and concerns of LEP individuals. This may even involve having an over-the-phone interpretation (OPI) service at the ready at vaccine distribution points in order to address queries in languages other than English.

Promoting Confidence in Healthcare

Mara Youdelman, an attorney in Washington, D.C., put the state of language access into perspective recently when she said, “In good times, effective language access is often not the top priority, so when you’ve compounded it with all of the stresses on the healthcare system right now, it just falls lower and lower down the list.”

The role of professional medical translators (and medical interpreters) is to facilitate clear communication of public health information to LEP individuals, families, and communities, as well as to provide well-translated medical documents such as pharmacovigilance safety information, scientific research reports, regulatory documentation, FAQs, medical reports, and even patient forms. When it comes to healthcare, the stakes are high and people depend not only on accurate medical translations and interpretation services that they can trust, but also the availability of such translations in a language they’re comfortable with.

Comparison of COVID-19 vaccine acceptance (A) to reported influenza vaccine uptake (B) in the U.S. by Department of Health and Human Services region.

Comparison of COVID-19 vaccine acceptance (A) to reported influenza vaccine uptake (B) in the U.S. by Department of Health and Human Services region.

COVID-19 Vaccinations

A recent study found that 67% of Americans would take the COVID-19 vaccine upon medical recommendation, but even within this promising acceptance rate, there are noticeable demographic and geographical disparities. While Black Americans had the lowest acceptance rate of all racial groups surveyed, the Department of Health and Human Services also identified Chicago and New York as having less than 50% acceptance rates. This suggests a need to improve public health communications.

It’s clear that for any COVID-19 vaccination effort to be successful in reaching and protecting our communities and livelihoods, US public health officials and key policymakers must prioritize accurate, efficient COVID-19 vaccine communication and messaging for all Americans, especially for the groups that have poor or non-existent translations. Providing well-translated information to LEPs will empower individuals, protect communities and safeguard public health, both in the US and around the world. Through sharing reliable information with the global medical and scientific research communities, we can continue to collaborate and find innovative solutions to whatever challenges the world will face in 2021 and beyond.

At PGLS, we specialize in high quality medical translations. We understand how important it is for LEP communities to have accessible, well translated, and accurate health information. Contact us today, or subscribe to our newsletter. We’re here to help!

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PGLS – Every Word Matters

Based in the greater Washington, D.C. area with team members across the world, Piedmont Global Language Solutions (PGLS) leverages nearly 25 years of language service experience to consistently deliver on-time, accurate, and personalized language service solutions to numerous companies and government agencies. Backed by our industry-leading processes and resources, PGLS offers Translation, Interpretation, Transcription, Language Training, and Localization in more than 450 language combinations.

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