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USSD, WhatsApp self-assessment launched to chart coronavirus

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The health department’s HealthCheck tool is accessible via WhatsApp and USSD.
The health department’s HealthCheck tool is accessible via WhatsApp and USSD.

The Department of Health (DOH) has upgraded its coronavirus WhatsApp information hub, COVID-19 Connect, to now include a health self-assessment tool.

Dubbed HealthCheck, the digital tool will allow for early detection, mapping and management of COVID-19 cases using USSD and the official COVID-19 WhatsApp service.

The launch of HealthCheck comes as SA marks day 41 of the nationwide lockdown aimed at slowing down the spread of the coronavirus. The department confirmed the country’s COVID-19 caseshave climbed to 7 572, bringing the total deaths nationally to 148 as of Wednesday morning.

According to a statement, members of the public will be able to use HealthCheck to self-assess their COVID-19 risk by completing a few simple questions.

Based on their answers and symptoms or exposure history, they will be classified as low, moderate or high risk, and suggested actions or guidelines will be recommended based on this classification.

Actions can include remote medical advice or a suggestion to visit a nearby healthcare facility, says the statement.

“Importantly, all data from HealthCheck will remain private and secure and will only be used by the NDOH (National Department of Health) and NICD (National Institute for Communicable Diseases) to map possible infections or future outbreaks and input into epidemiological models to inform decision-making on the national response to COVID-19.”

The DOH launches the risk-assessment tool with technical assistance from Praekelt.org, using Turn.io machine learning technology, and with the support of clinical partner Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute. Development funding is from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Praekelt.org has also been instrumental in helping the World Health Organisation develop its own WhatsApp messaging helpline, which is used to get accurate COVID-19 information directly into the hands of the public.

To access the HealthCheck tool via the USSD line, which is free of charge, users will need to dial *134*832#, follow menu instructions and a series of short questions.

The statement notes the questions include location (province and town), age category, symptoms (fever, cough and sore throat), exposure to infected persons and acceptance of terms and conditions, and confirmation that the DOH can contact them.

For those looking to do a self-assessment via the COVID-19 Connect WhatsApp helpline, they can message the word “Hi” to 0600 123 456 and follow this up by typing the word “CHECK” to start the assessment.

The WhatsApp helpline has had over 6.2 million users since its launch on 18 March.

“The availability of HealthCheck on both platforms means NICD and NDOH guidelines on self-isolation, testing or whether users should seek medical care will reach many more people during the current COVID-19 pandemic. It will also play an important role in taking the pressure off the country’s healthcare facilities whilst they are dealing with critical care of COVID-19 patients.

“South Africans are encouraged to HealthCheck on a weekly basis and will be prompted by SMS reminders sent out by local network operators.

“The HealthCheck digital risk-assessment and mapping tool will be available in all 11 official languages, starting with English, isiZulu, isiXhosa, seSotho and Afrikaans.”

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