Malawi is testing a program that uses drones to increase access to HIV testing in babies. High costs and inaccessible roads in remote areas are a few reasons HIV testing and diagnosis may be slow and delay access to antiretroviral treatment.
Malawi has one of the highest rates of HIV in the world, with 10 percent of Malawians affected. The United Nations’ (UN) children’s agency, UNICEF, partnered with US-based drone company Matternet to create a program that allows drones to pick up blood samples from local health centers and deliver them to specialist laboratories that can test them. There are only eight laboratories that can test for HIV across the country, which has a population of more than 16 million. UNICEF estimates that about 40,000 babies were born to HIV positive mothers in 2014. Around 10,000 children die of the virus every year, but early diagnosis and quality care could reduce that number.
Researchers are hoping that drones will be faster and more efficient than the current method of having motorbike couriers transport samples. Motorbikes can make the roundtrip to get samples from health care centers to the laboratory and return the results in about two months; the program aims to reduce that timeframe. Before launching the program, the researchers are starting with simulated samples. To date, a successful test flight has traveled 10 km from a community health center to a hospital laboratory in the country’s capital. The program plans for health workers to be able to operate the drones using a password and GPS signal from their mobile phones. Though the initial cost for drones is significantly more than motorbikes, inexpensive battery charging costs make drones cheaper in the long run.
Analysis: Drones may offer a less expensive, faster, and more efficient method to get to hard-to-reach patients in rural areas, areas hit by a disaster, or remote areas in other countries. Underdeveloped infrastructure and vast distances to remote communities can make getting medications and services to patients a significant challenge. Drones have been used for surveillance and assessments of disasters, but this may be the first program to use drones to improve HIV services.
Many startups and major retailers and the federal government are taking note and exploring the potential for drones in health care and beyond. In addition to Matternet, a Silicon Valley start-up called Zipline International is partnering with the Rwandan government to establish medical services using drones in that country. After identifying what medical supplies are needed for a patient or clinic, Zipline will receive an order by central depot and deploy the drone. The package will be airdropped and the drone will return to base. The partnership will start with Zipline delivering blood-related products for 20 health facilities with plans to extend in the coming months.
As drone technology becomes more widespread and cost-effective, many researchers behind these types of experiments are hoping they may revolutionize access to medical care and provide aid in humanitarian crises in the US and beyond.
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