Government has partnered United Nations children’s fund (Unicef) to test the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones) in HIV testing of infants.
Infants who have HIV positive mothers need to be tested early so that they can receive treatment. However, in Malawi only half of babies with HIV have access to treatment, and their initial diagnosis is often delayed because of the poor state of the roads.
It currently takes an average of 11 days to get blood samples from Malawi’s remote health centres to a central laboratory for testing for the AIDS virus and a further eight weeks for the results to be delivered back.
That is where drones comes in; they will dramatically reduce the waiting time for the blood test results and more young children will be able to start HIV treatment.
The first successful test flight completed a 10km route unhindered travelling from a community health centre to the Kamuzu Central Hospital laboratory.
This is a positive development as drones can solve logistical challenges in health delivery in a country where 10,000 children died from HIV-related diseases in 2014. In the same year, nearly 40,000 children in Malawi were born to HIV positive mothers.
“This innovation could be the breakthrough in overcoming transport challenges and associated delays experienced by health workers in remote areas of Malawi.
“Quality care of these children depends on early diagnosis, which requires taking dried blood samples from the health centre to the central laboratory for testing.
“We hope that UAVs can be part of the solution to reduce transportation time and ensure that children who need it, start their treatment early,” said Mahimbo Mdoe, Unicef Representative in Malawi.
Minister of Health Peter Kumpalume also acknowledged the potential of the drones to solve a problem that has been there for a long time.
“It’s specialist testing we do for youngsters. If you delay giving them treatment most of them don’t live beyond two years old.
“So the earlier the detection and the earlier the intervention, the longer they live and become productive citizens of the country,” said Kumpalume.
The UAV flights are supported by US company, Matternet, who created the UAV being used in the test, designed exclusively for transportation. After the test flights, the cost comparison with road transport will be done, and if favourable, the second phase will carry out test flights from remote areas of the country.