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Drones in Malawi: Africa’s Latest Medical Miracle?

April 18, 2016 at 04:30 am | Tech & Innovation

Charles Ayitey

Charles Ayitey | Contributor

April 18, 2016 at 04:30 am | Tech & Innovation

Drone technology is being used to support medical needs in rural Malawi. (Photo: UNICEF)

Africa is experiencing one of its most breathtaking medical breakthroughs: drones are being used in rural sub-regions of Malawi as part of efforts to speed up HIV test results. In this development pioneered by the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), custom-made drones embark on a 10 km flight route to pick up and deliver samples for faster testing. In fact, health authorities have revealed that should the recent medical technology prove effective, up to 250 tests of samples should be able to get carried at once.

“The transport system is unreliable, it has got a lot of delays, bikes are expensive, they don’t have money for fuel and results don’t get picked up. The drone could solve a lot of those delays. The samples are very light, they’re on cards. They put the blood onto the cards and let them dry and then put them in a sealed bag. It has to be worked out but potentially it could be a bigger drone that can fly further and has a bigger battery,” UNICEF’s chief of communication, advocacy and partnerships Angela Travis has revealed.

With Africa’s health system gradually taking shape, the continent’s rural sector tends to miss out on the ease of access to quality health care systems mainly due to the lack of motorable roads and even community hospitals. Where there are rural hospitals, they often lack needed equipment, as in the cases of the isolated Zithulele rural hospital in South Africa, which cannot boast of an intensive care unit nor an ambulance to provide patients with the urgent medical assistance. With over 5 million people living with HIV in the rural areas, South Africa urgently needs a reliable medical intervention such as these Matternet-manufactured drones.

Aside the issue of HIV/AIDS, such a great medical feat as the custom-made drones can also come to the aid of  millions of children in rural Africa who cannot be vaccinated mainly due, once again, to inaccessible roads. In fact, research published on biomedcentral.com in 2008 reveals that 348 rural folks in Mozambique, mostly made up of nursing mothers, lived between 1 to 4 hours walking time from the nearest health facilities. Those needing transportation spent on average 18.0 Meticais (range 1.0 – 140.0; 1 USD = 18.0 Meticais) for a one-way trip to the health facility.

With this new technology on board, hopes remain high over the prospects of health care in rural Africa, especially when it comes to reducing the spate of maternal mortality found in numerous countries.

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