Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women in Nigeria, but many women are not aware of their risks because relevant information is not available to them in their native language. Temitope Olorunfemi, Ph.D., calls the language barrier “the secret killer” of Nigerian women and girls.
Olorunfemi is a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Computer Science, Gallogly College of Engineering at the University of Oklahoma and an international fellow of the American Association of University Women.
While the challenges associated with improving awareness of risk, prevention and diagnosis are certainly complex, Olorunfemi has an approach that could reduce some of the barriers preventing diagnosis early enough for women to seek treatment.
“When you don’t have the knowledge of the risks around you because of the language barrier, we can’t be of assistance to help these women care for their own health,” she said.
Olorunfemi observed that cultural biases and illiteracy were preventing women and girls in rural Nigeria from being aware of health risks like cervical cancer.
“In the urban areas of Nigeria, cervical cancer risks are well known, but in the rural areas they don’t care because they don’t know,” she said. "Ignorance is not going to keep the disease from coming. Since language is a barrier, we can develop a system to help them have a private conversation in their own language to help them better understand what cervical cancer is, its risks, and how it can be treated before becoming late stage,” she added.
Working with the associate director of the OU School of Computer Science, Dean Hougen, Ph.D., Olorunfemi is developing an automated dialogue system designed in the Yoruba language to help women and girls in southwestern Nigeria self-diagnose cervical cancer. The research team includes assistant professors in the School of Computer Science, Dimitris Diochnos and Chao Lan, computer science doctoral students, S.J. Ajisegiri and Jalal Saidi, and a master’s student in OU’s data science and analytics program, Francis Oyebanji.
An advisory group of medical personnel in the field of cervical cancer, computer scientists, and women from the community Olorunfemi hopes to serve are contributing to the development and implementation of the technology. An added benefit of her project will be to help improve access to computer systems.
“If these women can have a conversation with a computer system, they will also gain experience working with the technology,” she said. “Many of them don’t even know what a computer system is, so we’ll enable them to know how to make use of a computer system and be able to diagnose themselves while feeling more at home.”
Ultimately, Olorunfemi hopes the application she creates could be an ATM-like kiosk where women could conveniently and privately have an automated dialogue in their own language to improve their understanding of cervical cancer and receive recommendations for nearby healthcare.
“On the larger picture, we’re thinking about implementing a version in the Spanish language,” she said. “I believe that when people see this software, they can see ways it could be done for other diseases and in other languages.”
Olorunfemi plans to have a Yoruba language automated health system available in summer 2022.