The Government of Malawi and UNICEF on 14 March 2016 successfully tested the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones) to explore cost effective ways of reducing waiting times for HIV testing of infants.
As part of the test, simulated blood samples were transported from a community health centre to the Kamuzu Central Hospital laboratory that is located at a distance of 10 kilometers.
Though drones were used in the past for surveillance and assessments of disaster, this is the first known use of UAVs in Africa for improvement of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) services.
After successful completion of further tests, the drone services will be integrated into the health system alongside others existing mechanisms such as road transport and short message service (SMS).
Significance of UAVs for Malawi
The successful completion of tests and integration of UAVs with HIV services of significance for Malawi due to the following scenario.
In 2014, nearly 40000 children in Malawi were born to HIV positive mothers. It is also estimated that around 10000 children deaths occur every year due to the infection.
The high incidence of deaths is attributed to the fact that there is a considerable delay in diagnosis of the infection in infants. This is because of transport challenges and associated delays experienced by health workers in remote areas of the country.
Samples are currently transported by road, either by motorbike or local authority ambulances. Various factors including the high cost of diesel fuel, poor state of roads and limited distribution schedules have resulted in extreme delays in lab sample transport.
It currently takes an average of 11 days to get samples from health centre to a testing lab, and up to 8 weeks for the results to be delivered back.
The longer the delay between test and results, the higher the default rate of the patient. The delay also constitutes a significant impediment for the scaling up of pediatric Antiretroviral therapy or ART’s effectiveness.
Against this backdrop, the successful deployment of UAVs could be the breakthrough in successful prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV in Malawi.
Usage of drones in health services
The deployment of UAVs in the provision of health services is of significance due to the following factors -
• Severe weather conditions
• Navigating in densely populated and traffic congestion areas
• Lesser availability of physicians
• Sparsely populated areas with limited accessibility
• To relieve physicians of certain petty duties
Further, as a fully autonomous machine, drones could be programmed with specific delivery points and delivery schedules making the technology viable in healthcare delivery. According to the WHO, 45.8 percent of WHO Member States have less than one physician per 1000 people.
At present, the USA-based Matternet has been experimenting with medical deliveries by drone in developing countries such as Haiti, Bhutan and Papua New Guinea in recent years.
In 2014, the Government of Bhutan collaborated with the World Health Organization for deployment of UAVs in the provision of health services in remote and hilly areas of the country.
Another drone project, called Redline, plans to deliver medical supplies to remote parts of Rwanda in 2017.
In August 2015, the Hyderabad-based Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPH) started experimenting with a UAV, named Phantom, to transport medicines to chronic patients who need a fixed amount of drugs every month.
Based on the results, the researchers are planning to expand this project to transport drugs to the sub-centres and from there directly at the doorstep of the patient.
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What: Launched by UNICEF
When: 14 March 2016