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Kiwi doctors create world-first chatbot to fight misinformation amid deadly Samoa measles outbreak


Two New Zealand doctors are putting their masterminds together, and combining their interests in health and technology, to fight back against Samoa's measles epidemic.

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Dr Canaan Aumua and Dr Sanjeev Krishna talked about the issue as the death toll from the disease grows in the Pacific. Source: Breakfast

As of yesterday, 55 people have died from the measles outbreak in Samoa. Misinformation and a lack of information is in part to blame for the country's extremely low vaccination rate. 

Doctor Canaan Aumua and doctor Sanjeev Krishna, wanting to join the efforts to stop the measles epidemic, have designed, created and funded themselves a world-first chatbot on Facebook messenger to help people learn about the disease.

People can access the platform through Facebook page Stop Measles NZ, where they can talk to chatbot Mītara. She will answer questions and display menus to help navigate information, or redirect the question to a trained medical practitioner if the question is too complicated or she doesn't understand.

About 30,000 interactions have so far been recorded. There's been a lot of use from people, not only in New Zealand but also a lot of use in the Pacific, in North America, Asia and the UK, who have have used the device to learn about the disease, including what it looks like and how it's spread, and about safe vaccination.

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So far 55 people have died since the epidemic was declared in mid-October and with 18 children in intensive car, the toll is expected to rise further. Source: 1 NEWS

Dr Krishna said they were providing information in line with the Ministry of Health and Immunisation Advisory Centre recommendations.

"Some of it's just simple information and making that available to people that might not even know about measles itself," Mr Krishna said.

"Our two big things were tackling misinformation and second giving everyone this information available."

He said since Facebook is so readily available, they were able to reach more people.

"It all just started with a conversation really," he said. "As Auckland, New Zealand was starting to have measles cases come up in the news and media and also clinically - seeing them in hospital work - I think we both got frustrated with the amount of misinformation that was out there."

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The government will shut down on December 5 and 6 as it grapples with the epidemic. Source: 1 NEWS

Mr Aumua added, "as medical professionals, not only do we have responsibility clinically, right there with the patients that are in front of us, but also to the general public in making sure that they're able to access the correct health advice wherever they are in New Zealand and abroad.

"This was a great way that we could use such a widespread platform to spread the word."

Mr Aumua said there was a lot of fear about vaccinating, especially following the deaths of two babies in Samoa in July last year following MMR vaccinations. Two nurses were sentenced to five years prison after one mixed the MMR vaccine powder with expired muscle relaxant anesthetic instead of water.

"This is a great opportunity for us to really put that word out there and help to try and re-instill some confidence, not only in the vaccine itself, but in the health services here in New Zealand, but in the Pacific as well."