Language scheme improves understanding of health

A pioneering scheme with English language learners has had a significant impact on their understanding of infectious disease.

The project, published in Research for all, was a collaborative partnership between University of Manchester and University College London academics, Bolton College English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) tutors and their learners.

The University of Manchester reports Dr Sheena Cruickshank, an immunologist at the university, said the scheme revealed a lack of awareness of some of the significant health problems in the participants countries of origin. There were also misconceptions about some conditions.

A set of six lessons were delivered to adult learners, covering common global infections, infection transmission, infection in history, vaccines, and allergy. Learning activities embedded speaking, listening, reading and writing activities into learning around infection, alongside interactive activities and games.

The students, from countries including Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, India, Somalia and Thailand, said they felt the lessons had made a significant difference to their understanding of health issues in their everyday lives. They felt more confident discussing these issues with their families, with others within their communities, and most importantly with healthcare professionals. After the lessons the students were able to, for example, write letters of advice about the MMR vaccination.

Some of the students had felt that infections such as parasitic worm infections meant they were dirty and unhygienic and were embarrassed to discuss them. However, once they realised how common worm infections were in the UK, and how easy they were to catch, they were more relaxed and confident about discussing them. Indeed, once they had learnt the scientific terminology, they enjoyed discussing the science and questioning and developing their own ideas.

Some students came from areas where certain diseases were stigmatised, such as the parasitic disease leishmaniasis. With the input of schemes like this, the team say, risk and stigma can be tackled. Many students were also unaware of many common infections with great health and societal impact, such as lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis) and schistosomiasis (bilharzia) which is a concern where health measures are implemented to try and manage such infections.

Sheena Cruickshank said “Health education is a fundamental right for everyone. We need to be able to access reliable accessible information so that we can better manage our own health. Confusion and fears about, for example, the safety of the MMR vaccine have led to a drop in vaccine uptake resulting in a resurgence of preventable measles and mumps. Our own work with immigrant communities has identified a lack of awareness of infections such as gut parasitic worm (helminth) infections in their countries of origin, and a lack of English language skills around medical and scientific terms that would enable many within these communities to access the right healthcare in the UK. This is a problem because though immigrant communities represent a particularly vulnerable population; few public engagement and health education projects have worked with them.

“Feedback from students was so positive we suggest developing programmes of this nature represents a potentially fruitful avenue for more-accessible public engagement with research and health education practices. Working in collaboration with ESOL teachers was a useful way to target and reach immigrant communities in the UK as ESOL classes are a significant point of access for immigrant communities to the UK infrastructure, upon which access to further education, health and social services, as well as employment opportunities can hinge.”

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