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Language Barriers To Vaccines, And How To Save Our Communities


After a year of struggling through the pandemic, hope is finally on the horizon. With half of Americans receiving a vaccine for Covid-19, a sense of normalcy is returning after a stressful period of instability. However, this is not the case for all Americans. Many foreign language speakers across the country face language barriers that blocks access to critical information about coronavirus vaccines.

Language Barriers to Vaccine Access

According to a study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), language barriers do impact vaccination rates. The United States has reported lags in providing information in foreign languages. This lag has, as a result,  led to lower vaccine rates in migrant communities. Jumping through hoops to receive the vaccination can be a challenging process. Foreign language speakers who do not have access to critical information about the vaccine can find it even more difficult to become fully vaccinated.

Hispanic people across the United States continue to be especially underrepresented among those vaccinated for Covid-19, according to New York Times analysis of state-reported race and ethnicity information. Graph by The New York Times.

According to an article by the Associated Press, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted Latinos in America due to language barriers. In addition, largely Latino communities are more likely to encounter misinformation regarding available vaccines. State websites do have information on vaccinations. However, not all of the instructions are translated, which can cause confusion for non-english speakers.

For example, the Arizona Department of Health Services (AZDHS) has a patient portal allowing Spanish speakers to make appointments to receive vaccines. However, the department’s vaccine-finder page showing a map of vaccination sites throughout the state, does not translate into Spanish.

With 31 percent of Arizonans being Hispanic or Latino, and only 15 percent have received only their first dose, it is vital to make information as clear as possible to bolster vaccination rates in Latino communities. And as variants, such as the Delta variant, spreads among the unvaccinated population, time is of the essence to make information easily accessible to everyone.

Strategies to Reduce Language Barriers

The language barrier has been difficult to overcome. Thankfully, organizations have committed to breaking down these barriers and making information accessible to everyone. Early in the pandemic,  A Foreign Language Service – AFLS partnered with the Glendale Covid testing station at State Farm Stadium, the home of the Cardinals, to provide on-site Spanish interpreters.

A Foreign Language Service – AFLS partnered early in the pandemic with the Glendale Covid testing station. They provided on-site Spanish interpreters at State Farm Stadium, the home of the Cardinals. Photo by halfpoint on CanvaPro.

When the vaccine rollout began, A Foreign Language Service – AFLS sent interpreters to Maryvale vaccination sites from January to March in 2021. According to a survey done by AZDHS in 2020, 76 percent of people living in the Maryvale community are Hispanic. Interpreters sent by AFLS were able to help out non-english speakers as they received their vaccinations.

Having interpreters at vaccination sites solves numerous issues. Aside from directly breaking down the language barrier, interpreters also prevent miscommunication between patients and healthcare workers. Interpreters also help to provide clear information to non-English speakers, which can strengthen trust in the vaccine.

Solutions for Increased Patient Care

The Idaho Office for Refugees (IOR) has contributed to this effort by providing refugees with interpreters when they receive their vaccine. Salome Mwangi, an interpreter for IOR, described the importance of her role in an interview with Katija Stjepovic. In the article, Mwangi explained that a lot of African languages are not technical. In addition, African languages rarely use English terms. These linguistic differences can make it hard for refugees to fully understand what the vaccine is and how it works.

An interpreter, whether on-site or remote, can provide vital help to patients and their caregivers. Interpreters assist people with better understanding the health care information available to them. Photo by Javier Sánchez Mingorance on CanvaPro.

The work of an interpreter includes helping people better understand the information available to them. “As an interpreter, I know that if I tell somebody to get the vaccine they will do it because I said it,” Mwangi said. “But I don’t want people to get the vaccine because I’m saying it. I want you to have the information…to make an informed decision based on the information that you have.”

Mwangi is working with other interpreters and mental health providers who have worked with refugees to establish better communication. “A lot of refugees that are here have been through some horrible traumatic situations and experiences,” said Mwangi. “So acknowledge that and say I understand that this could be the reason you are hesitant. I understand this experience that you went through, predisposes you to not trust new things and new situations.”

Language Barriers and Vaccine Equity

The value of having an interpreter in these situations cannot be understated. But on-site interpreters are not the only resource for overcoming the language barrier. The study conducted by NCBI concluded that organizations need to provide instructions in foreign languages that are prominent in their communities. This way, efforts to inform non-English speakers can be customized based on the needs of each individual community.

AFLS interpreters and translators help ensure that language barriers are broken down. This way, both English and non-English speakers alike have vital access to vaccines. Photo by FatCamera on Getty Images Signature.

If these guidelines are followed, the language barrier can be broken down. Once that happens, vaccination rates in non-English speaking communities can increase. A Foreign Language Service – AFLS applied this concept when we coordinated with healthcare workers and interpreters working in the Maryvale community.

Interpreters and translators are absolutely vital in ensuring that non-English speakers have access to vaccines. Some non-English speakers may choose not to receive the vaccine. Regardless, our top priority is to provide access to potentially life-saving information.

How Interpreting And Translation Services Help Our Communities

As a trusted leading language service provider, A Foreign Language Service – AFLS provides OPI/ VRI interpreting and on-site interpreting, certified document translation, and localization services to clients around the world. We offer services in up to 400 languages, including high demand ones such as Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, and American Sign Language (ASL). Depending on your needs, we can also provide support in endangered and emerging languages like Basque, Irish Gaelic, and Quechua.

In this vital work, we collaborate with a network of 1500-strong passionate, licensed professional translators and interpreters based throughout the world. Our clients include global brands and government agencies, as well as the medical, legal, business, and education communities. At AFLS, we understand the power and importance of language. We know that every language matters. Your language matters. Contact us today for a free quote!

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