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HEALTH ALERT

WHO is raising coronavirus awareness globally using a WhatsApp bot developed in South Africa

REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

One of the biggest challenges for governments, public health authorities and ordinary citizens around the world will be coping  with the overwhelming amount of daily information about the scale of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

Perhaps the key challenge is not just the volume but also being able to confidently discern between accurate and reliable sources from incorrect and misleading information.

In the social media age where hundreds of millions of people around the world have a a mobile device with access to platforms including Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, even while the world’s top scientists struggle to fully understand the scope of the pandemic, that need for trustworthy sources becomes vital, even life-saving.

This is why a WhatsApp platform developed by the South African company, Praekelt.org to provide information on the coronavirus outbreak has been quickly adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO) to reach at least 50 million people around the globe.

WhatsApp WHO Health Alerts

Although WhatsApp is owned by Silicon Valley-based Facebook, it is very popular in the developing world including in India, Latin America and Africa, where it is the continent’s most popular messaging app. In all it has more than 2 billion users globally.

Praekelt.org, a Johannesburg-based non profit organization, was running a similar program for South Africa’s health department on maternal well-being when coronavirus rapidly evolved into a global pandemic, proposed to create the same platform for  health queries on Covid-19. The virus has already claimed the lives of more than 21,270 deaths worldwide while more than 470,000 infections cases have been recorded.

The WhatsApp bot uses Turn.io’s machine learning technology to deliver automated responses for free with information on coronavirus including travel advice, latest numbers, symptoms and to dismiss myths and misconceptions. After having been successful in South Africa reaching over 2.6 million users, WHO was introduced to Praekelt.org by WhatsApp.

“This service will provide the latest news and information on COVID-19, including details on symptoms and how to protect yourself,” said WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a statement.

The WHO WhatsApp platform dubbed WHO Health Alert which was launched by the organization on Mar. 20 surpassed 10 million users in just three days.

The WHO Health Alert service is available in English while Arabic and Spanish WhatsApp service are expected to be launched this week with more than 20 languages, including Kiswahili, Farsi and Italian coming soon.

WhatsApp is often blamed for enabling the spread of misleading information about on every from politics to financial scams as well as public health rumors.  False information about coronavirus on WhatsApp in recent weeks has included everything from false claims about cures from religious leaders, reports about unproven medications and conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus.

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