Swine Flu and the Repercussions of Health Literacy

April 29, 2009

A few years ago, we were shocked by the Avian Influenza, a virus that occurs naturally in birds. The virus started in Asia and people across the world were scared to eat poultry because of the potentially fatal illness.


Enter 2009 and the swine flu. According to the Center of Disease Control, the swine flu is a respiratory disease of pigs that is contagious and spreads from human to human.


So far, the flu has claimed more than 150 lives in Mexico and one in Texas.


For those who may not be able to speak for themselves or use advanced vocabulary, verbalize questions in a medical setting, or understand basic instructions without an interpreter, comprehending information related to personal or public health may be difficult.


In some classes, Project Learn teachers felt it was appropriate to explain the virus and potential effect it may have on the country.


Although many students heard about the flu virus on television, newspapers or in general conversation, some could not understand what was being discussed. They didn’t know what words like “epidemic” and “pandemic” meant.


This is a serious problem, especially when the general public is at risk.


Imagine what the consequences are for people who don’t know the importance of washing their hands after they sneeze or don’t take their medication correctly. Think about how many people could be less sick, or even cured, if they did.


Going beyond swine flu, this has a direct relationship with health literacy.


Health literacy refers to the ability to read and have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.


One in five adults read at or below the 5th grade reading level, but most health materials are written at the 10th grade level or above. Newspapers aren’t always easy to understand either, even though some, like USA Today, is written at a 4th grade level.


Here are a few impediments that may make it difficult for non-English speakers or adults with poor literacy skills in developing health literacy:

  • Lack of access to basic health care due to language barriers or lack of insurance.

  • Lack of language skills. Learners may be unable to speak for themselves, use sophisticated vocabulary, formulate appropriate questions in a medical setting, or comprehend basic instructions without an interpreter.

  • Lack of awareness of U.S. healthcare culture, including what is expected of the patient and what the patient can expect of care providers (Courtesy of the Center of English Language Acquisition).

It is important that doctors, nurses, teachers and other individuals pay attention to the signs that indicate a person has low health literacy skills. By helping them understand what is needed to stay healthy, you can prevent them from engaging in activities that could harm themselves or others. (See what we’re doing.)


What are you doing to communicate swine flu?


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