By Umberto Bacchi
TBILISI, Feb 19 (Openly) - Tasked with tackling sky-high rates of vaccine hesitancy in Kazakhstan, an online chatbot has been enlisted to shatter myths and dispel doubts about the COVID-19 jab as the Central Asian nation kicks off its inoculation drive.
Only about 25% of Kazakhs say they would opt to be vaccinated against the coronavirus compared with 75% of Britons and 56% of Americans, according to data from the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs.
Such findings spurred the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) to launch the new tech tool to counter widespread misinformation by providing a reliable source of facts and figures about COVID-19.
"Creating a chatbot is an opportunity to keep up with the times," Yerkebek Argymbayev, president of the Red Crescent Society of Kazakhstan, said in a statement.
"With this bot people will be able to learn what they are interested in; from the myths associated with the coronavirus and vaccines, to the opportunity to enrol in first aid courses."
An IFRC survey conducted in the country between November and December last year found social media were the second most popular and most trusted source of information after television.
Yet, not everything circulating online is accurate, said IFRC community engagement delegate Mark South.
Operating from the IFRC's page on Telegram, a popular social media and messaging app, the bot will answer questions on all things COVID-19, he said.
"The chatbot really has a key role to play in reaching more people with information from a trusted source," South told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Kazakhstan plans to vaccinate about 6 million people - almost a third of its population - against COVID-19 this year. A mass inoculation campaign started this month, with the Russian Sputnik V vaccine being offered to medical workers.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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