Malawian IT student invents harm-reduction chatbot
The chatbot provides information on tobacco harm reduction, smoking dangers, and advice for those who want to switch to safer alternatives (By Josephine Chinele)
Malawi: In the wake of a global tobacco harm reduction (THR) campaign, University of Malawi (Unima) Information, Communication Technology (ICT) student, Martha Mwase, has developed an artificial intelligence-based chatbot that shares information on smoking and THR.
“Some smokers are shy or uncomfortable talking about their smoking habits to others. The online chatbot will help such people and everyone else to confidentially learn and explore quitting options and science-proven information on smoking and tobacco harm reduction,” she said.
Mwase added that by making information easily accessible in a simple and interactive format, people will be able to make more informed personal health decisions, such as switching from smoking to safer alternatives.
“Chatbots allow users to take control of the information they want to know in real-time and in an interactive way,” she said.
The chatbot, which provides information on tobacco harm reduction, smoking dangers, and advice for those who want to switch to safer alternatives, has been deployed on THR Malawi's website and will be available to users for the next 12 months
Chitsanzo Mafuta, a mental health expert, responded to this development by saying that innovative methods of disseminating science-based information would help in reaching out to people who are unaware of new and safer health technologies.
“Health information technology offers many opportunities to improve and transform public health, such as increasing the reach of evidence and people's ability to use and apply evidence,” he said.
THR is the provision of less harmful nicotine-containing products to tobacco users who are unwilling or unable to quit using nicotine products. Tobacco harm-reduction products include snus and electronic cigarettes.
According to Philip Morris International (PMI), one of the world's leading international tobacco companies, while quitting nicotine and tobacco is the best option for any smoker, better alternatives exist for adult smokers who would otherwise continue smoking cigarettes through THR.
The World Health Organization says tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable deaths worldwide. The UN agency says smoking kills nearly seven million more people each year than AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined.
“Almost a million people in Malawi are active tobacco users. An estimated 5, 800 Malawians die from smoking-related diseases every year,” the WHO says.
However, most Malawians are unaware of new technologies that deliver nicotine in a less harmful form.
A lack of knowledge about technologies is a barrier to the adoption of safer products.