JOHANNESBURG: The Department of Health in collaboration with Reach Digital Health and Elton John AIDS Foundation has launched the Young Africa Live (YAL) Smart bot – a  WhatsApp platform designed to help young people tackle the complex questions that arise during adolescence stage around love and relationships, sexuality, mental health, HIV and STIs, contraceptives and pregnancy, etc.

The South African-based WhatsApp platform is the first to be launched under the YAL umbrella, and forms part of the department`s interactive digital health platform called B-Wise Health, designed to help and empower young people with solutions to the challenges surrounding sex and relationships in a private and safe space that puts the answers at their fingertips.

The establishment of this youth-targeted initiative was informed by the high rate of teenage pregnancy, and HIV infections amongst young people and the results of the Youth Sex Survey conducted in 2012, which found out that at least 60%  of the randomly surveyed 17 000 South African adolescents responded that they are not open to discuss or ask their parents about sexual issues. The survey results suggest that essential conversations surrounding sex remain taboo in some sections of society, making it difficult for young people to openly ask sex-related questions in order to make informed health choices.

Thus, the YAL platform is a solution that complements the existing B-Wise Health platform to put the power back in the hands of young people and give them the space they need to discover the answers themselves, without fear of judgment or reprisal. The platform is easy to use, and accessible, talks the language of the digital generation and gives them what they need to thrive in life.

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Health

On the YAL platform, no question is too embarrassing and no worry too strange. Young people can ask exactly what’s on their mind and receive a reassuring, informative, and accurate response. Users can chat in private via WhatsApp, and if there is a topic they want to discuss with their peers, they can jump across to the B-Wise Facebook or Instagram pages to see what others have to say. This allows the platform to establish common topics across key geographies and age groups and adapt the content on both public Facebook pages and on the private WhatsApp platform.

The platform uses artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing to understand free-form questions and replies automatically with the most relevant answers. This functionality is designed to learn and improve the more it’s used and will rapidly evolve to interpret the many ways in which young people ask for information. The insights, support, and information will be provided by trained experts at B-Wise who are accessible through the platform or on Facebook and Instagram.

The WhatsApp platform provides a space for the young to explore different features, search for services nearby, ask questions, or request a call from a qualified counselor. It also connects them to information that empowers them at a time when they are dealing with overwhelming physical and emotional change.

This ensures that each young person’s journey towards better sexual, reproductive, and mental health is tailored to their specific needs, providing a safe space for young people to explore sensitive topics in a privacy-protected and judgment-free environment.

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South Africa has embraced the potential of digital health technologies to improve the quality and coverage of healthcare, increase access to services and skills, and promote positive changes in health behaviors, hence the department has developed the National Digital Health Strategy for South Africa.

The platform functions 24/7/365 and delivers information to the youth in their language, in their way, and when they want it. For more information about accessing and benefiting from this initiative, young people can simply WhatsApp “Hi” to +27 60 071 7844 and follow the prompts to sign up.