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lost & found in translation

the role of the media at the WHO

After three years of medical school and a 24-hour flight to New Delhi, I'm beginning my year as the Stanford–ABC News Global Health Media Fellow. The fellowship, launched by Stanford's Center for Innovation in Global Health (CIGH), is a unique opportunity to integrate two of my strongest interests, media and medicine, through hands-on training at the World Health Organization in Delhi, the Stanford Graduate Program in Journalism, and ABC News in New York City.

Currently, I'm part of a team responsible for WHO's media output for the Southeast Asia Region. There is so much that goes into communicating global health issues to an international audience, and I'm just beginning to learn the ropes at a pace that rivals medical school. I recently sat down with Vismita Gupta-Smith, who heads the Public Information and Advocacy Unit (PIA), to talk about what we do within an organization like the WHO.

background
The WHO is the public health agency of the United Nations. It has played a major role in nearly every modern international health crisis I can think of, including the ebola outbreak and the recent earthquake in Nepal. The WHO partners with governments and organizations to collect data on global health concerns, set international standards and agendas, and ultimately provide resources and training to its member states so that countries can address their populations' specific needs. Most famously, it has targeted the eradication of a number of communicable diseases—like polio and dracunculiasis, a parasitic worm. Smallpox in the '60s and '70s, as well.
The Office of Public Information and Advocacy (PIA) is "responsible for communicating with the public the knowledge and information that sits within this organization," Vismita explains at her standing desk in a cozy office decorated with family photos and filmmaking awards. "And we do that in many different ways."
There are three questions that define how we do this in PIA: who is the target audience, what is the medium, and what are we trying to accomplish? The goal may be to urge countries to invest in their mental health programs, or it may be to inform people how to protect themselves from dengue. The WHO relies on its partners—other UN agencies, ministries of health, journalists, health workers, community members—to spread the message and take action.
So far, I've written about tobacco control and hepatitis in Southeast Asia, and I'm wrapping up a piece on Plasmodium vivax, the most geographically widespread of the malarial parasites. These pieces are often geared toward press releases, media statements, op-eds, and feature stories, but on the side I've been designing posters for public health campaigns, and there are a couple of video projects in the pipeline.
But once I've gotten my assignment, even with a clear audience and objective, there's an additional challenge: At the WHO, a lot of the source material comes from researchers, physicians, and technical directors. How best to unpack that information and make it accessible to the people who need to see it?
Drawn using a Wacom tablet on Photoshop.
lost & found in translation
After three years of medical school, I've gotten so used to translating into doctorspeak. In medicine, you don't faint; you syncopize. You aren't emotionless; you have a flat affect. Your eyelid isn't drooping; it's ptotic. It's a second language that you learn how to slip on and off like a white coat.
"That's always a bit of a challenge for any expert in any area, to then take all the knowledge that they have and translate it into simple things that they want people to do to protect their health," Vismita explains. 
A few weeks ago, I was rounding on patients with complex neurological conditions, learning to pronounce words I'd only ever seen in writing. But now, I've found myself translating back from the precise, technical language of medicine into something that is accessible and, most importantly, actionable. The communication barrier isn't just between doctor and patient; it extends into the world of global health, and that's a large part of what PIA (and this fellowship, for that matter) is about: communicating the broad, often technical work of the WHO to people who are impacted by health risks and policies.
"The people that are at risk may or may not have that access [to information]," says Vismita. Of course, communication is not just about finding a common language, or even choosing the right medium. And it's not something that PIA can do alone. Among the 11 countries in WHO's South-East Asia Region, there is a wide range of governments, infrastructures, literacy rates, and access to health information and services. "A lot of barriers have to be crossed before that information is translated. That's not an easy job, and we do that every day."
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