4 Dec 2019

World-first measles online chatbot sees surge in users from Pacific desperate for help

From First Up, 5:32 am on 4 December 2019

A world-first online measles chatbot designed by two young Pacific doctors has gone gangbusters over the last few weeks with a surge in the number of parents from the Pacific asking for help on how to treat their children who've been diagnosed with measles.

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Photo: Alex Perrottet/RNZ

The chatbot, Mitara, has received more than 30,000 interactions from people asking for advice on measles since it launched just a month ago.

"The bot was originally designed for New Zealand and now that it's has transitioned to users mostly in the Pacific, the questions have drastically changed from "How do we prevent this?" to "How do we go about treating this?", said Dr Canaan Aumua who co-founded the initiative.

"Now, we're receiving messages direct from parents who are sending pictures of their sick children with measles, asking for help. So for Sanjeev and I, this is a real obvious way to see the sheer desperation that is in Samoa at the moment that these families are feeling.”

Dr Aumua and his friend Dr Sanjeev Krishna wanted to help stop the spread of the disease so launched a free, interactive and instant online messaging service through Facebook messenger a month ago, answering questions from people about measles.

Dr Sanjeev Krishna and Dr Canaan Aumua

Photo: Natasha Aumua

Interactions with the measles chatbot Mitara has now spread from New Zealand to the Pacific with usage in Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Tokelau, French Polynesia and Kiribati. The bot has also interacted with users from North America, Europe, the United Kingdom and in Asia.

Dr Aumua says as the interaction has grown, the measles epidemic in Samoa has been heartbreaking to watch.

"It's devastating. Both Sanjeev and I share heritage in Samoa and Fiji and it's absolutely devastating just watching what's happening in Samoa. Seeing the devastation these families are facing is heartbreaking. To see your own people go through something that was ultimately preventable is heartwrenching,” said Dr Aumua.

“Although we can't be there physically to help, this is something that was really important for us to do to see if there was any way that we could help our people in any way possible."

After the deaths of the two babies in Samoa in 2018 who died after receiving an incorrectly administered MMR vaccination, Dr Aumua says many lost trust in the vaccines and Samoa’s health system.

Public mistrust and the low rates of immunisation in Samoa have played a huge part in the current measles epidemic, says Dr Aumua, which have so far led to 62 deaths in the country.

He said he’s pleased to see the government's crackdown on traditional healers advising people to get vaccinated.

Samoan traditional healer Maria Amituanai treats patients with measles symptoms.

Samoan traditional healer Maria Amituanai treats patients with measles symptoms. Photo: RNZ

“We all would have grown up with quite a traditional background with traditional healing and massage and those sorts of alternative treatments are part of our upbringing and part of our culture,” he explained.

“And so for the Prime Minister of Samoa to take that stand and reiterate to people that vaccines in this particular situation is the only way and is the most important thing that families can do to protect themselves against measles - I support that one hundred percent.”

He’s now considering travelling to Samoa to help with the next cohort of medical staff on the ground.

"I think the reality will well and truly hit once I’m there. It's easy to talk about it while we're over here separated from the chaos that's happening there,” said Dr Aumua.

“But I’m sure that for those doctors, nurses and just people volunteering on the ground, they also feel a really close connection to their people and their country. Particularly Pacific Island people who have such a heart for service. We'll be really happy and really proud to be there serving our people as well."

You can reach the measles chatbot Mitara here: https://www.facebook.com/stopmeaslesnz/]

World-first Measles online chatbot Mitara, founded by Dr Canaan Aumua and Dr Sanjeev Krishna

World-first Measles online chatbot Mitara, founded by Dr Canaan Aumua and Dr Sanjeev Krishna Photo: supplied