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Harvard Medical School Affiliates Translate COVID-19 Information Into More Than 30 Languages

The Gordon Hall of Medicine stands at the center of the Harvard Medical School's quadrangle.
The Gordon Hall of Medicine stands at the center of the Harvard Medical School's quadrangle. By Justin F. Gonzalez
By Camille G. Caldera, Crimson Staff Writer

Dozens of students and faculty members from Harvard Medical School created and translated public health materials about the novel coronavirus pandemic into more than 30 languages this week.

Pooja Chandrashekar ’18 — a first-year student at Harvard Medical School, and the founder and director of the COVID-19 Health Literacy Project — started the project after realizing how little information about the pandemic was available in different languages.

“This makes it really difficult for patients with lower health literacy to know when and how to seek care, especially patients from immigrant backgrounds, or from non English speaking communities,” Chandrashekar said.

Since the project’s founding last week, 175 medical students representing more than 30 institutions and speaking a collective 37 languages have contributed.

The project includes seven one-page fact sheets. Three are separately dedicated to information, prevention, and management of the disease; three contain information for children and adolescents; and one focuses on coronavirus and pregnancy.

So far, the sheets have been translated into 34 languages, including Arabic, Hindi, Greek and Vietnamese. Sheets in ten languages are currently online, and the remainder of the translations will become available online soon.

Though medical students performed the majority of the translation work, all the materials were reviewed and vetted — both in English and after translation — by faculty members at the Medical School.

Alexandria Y. Lee — a student at the Harvard School of Public Health who helped translate materials into Mandarin — wrote in an email that thoughts of her grandparents inspired her to work on the project.

“My grandparents are already very good about trying to keep up with the news and health precautions/guidelines during this COVID-19 pandemic, but sometimes the information they get is passed around quickly and not very accurate,” she said. “I hope that by contributing this way that I might be helping other family members who may be nervous about our current situation and better inform them with more accurate information.”

Gabrielle Brauner, a student at Stonybrook University School of Medicine, also had a personal reason to join the project: her father is immunosuppressed and could be at a high risk of complications if he were to contract the virus.

“There is not much I can do about that, besides stay away from him, so I feel useless in that aspect,” she wrote in an email. “Knowing that the effort that I’m putting in may allow people who speak other languages to understand the severity of this virus means a lot to me.”

Edwin “Ned” Palmer — a faculty reviewer for the project and a physician at Boston Children’s Hospital — said the project is key in its ability to communicate a “core nucleus” of information about COVID-19 to a wide audience.

“This is an unprecedented time of crisis, and reassurance of people is built around a core of knowledge and understanding,” he said. “From there, you can have the more detailed conversation to really help people understand why public health interventions matter, why shelter in place is a valuable thing, why your entire life has been disrupted and turned upside down.”

Baruch Krauss — another faculty reviewer from Boston Children’s Hospital — said the project’s three informational sheets targeted towards children fulfill an “unmet need.”

“I thought the project really addressed an unmet need, which was to provide accurate, engaging, and helpful resources to children in an age appropriate way so they can really understand what’s going on,” Krauss said.

Rachel M. Reardon — a Harvard Medical School student who led the efforts to produce materials for children — said that like non-English speakers, children are often “forgotten” in times of crisis.

“A big goal of the Health Literacy Project at large was to think about people who are traditionally marginalized or forgotten, and how important it is that all groups in our society have access to quality, reliable and understandable information,” she said. “Thinking about children is a crucial part of that because I do think that they can be a demographic that is overlooked or forgotten.”

Rachel Conrad — another faculty reviewer — said the project also represents an important tool for medical students who have been removed from clinical care situations to cope with the crisis.

In traumatic situations, Conrad said that staying “active, engaged, connected and motivated” helps to stave off post-traumatic stress and encourage post-traumatic growth.

“It’s really important for their own resilience,” she said.

Deborah Plana — an MD/Ph.D. student at Harvard who helped translate materials into Spanish — said projects like the Health Literacy Project are one way medical students have found to contribute to the fight against COVID-19.

“We’re in the spot where we really want to help as much as we can but we’re kind of unable to do things directly on the front lines, and so there’s been a lot of creative efforts that have come out of the medical school — both at Harvard and across the country — to try to help,” she said.

Plana said that other efforts at the Medical School include fulfilling childcare and food needs for medical professionals and gathering much-needed personal protective equipment, like masks.

As for the Health Literacy Project, just a week after the project began, the fact sheets and translations are already circulating to clinics and having an impact on patients.

“I forwarded the link to my own medical practice so that it could be used for our non-English speaking patients, and I’m confident that is being replicated around the nation,” said Sara B. Fazio, another faculty reviewer.

Harvard Health Publishing — the consumer information division of Harvard Medical School — is also partnering with the project and will publish the translations on its Coronavirus Resource Center, according to its executive editor Nancy Ferrari.

Correction: March 27, 2020

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Pooja Chandrashekar's graduation year from Harvard College. She graduated in 2018, not 2019.

Correction: March 27, 2020

A previous version of this article incorrectly listed Edwin "Ned" Palmer's name. He is Edwin, not Edward.

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

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