LILONGWE, Malawi — Malawi has one of the highest HIV rates in the world, with approximately one million, or 10.3 percent, of its inhabitants living with the disease. Recently, however, the Malawian Ministry of Health and UNICEF have been working together to see how drones can help improve HIV testing for infants. The Malawi drone experiment was successfully tested earlier this month.
According to a study by Avert, Malawi accounts for four percent of the total number of people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2013, there were 48,000 AIDS-related deaths in Malawi. In 2014, nearly 40,000 children in Malawi were born to mothers with HIV/AIDS, around 10,000 children in Malawi died from HIV-related diseases, and only 49 percent of children were given treatment, UNICEF reported.
Children may get the virus either during pregnancy, birth, or when the mother is breastfeeding.
The use of drones can help to bring the blood samples of infants to nearby laboratories for HIV-testing. This technology accelerates the diagnosis process, especially for those living in rural areas, which are less accessible for health workers, and where clinics are sparse.
On Tuesday, March 14, 2016, the first successful test flight of this initiative was completed. Angela Travis, the UNICEF spokeswoman in Malawi, said that the drones traveled 10 kilometers with a simulated blood sample. The flight route started at a community health center and ended at Kamuzu Central Hospital laboratory. The test flights were conducted over the course of five days to assess cost, efficiency and safety.
Blood samples are normally transported by motorbike or ambulance, wherein high fuel costs and bad roads can create serious problems.
“This innovation, to transport the dried blood samples from infants [by drone],” said Mahimbo Mdoe, the UNICEF Malawi Country Representative, “could bring a breakthrough in overcoming transport challenges and associated delays experienced by health workers in remote areas of Malawi.”
HIV screening for children with HIV-positive mothers is different from screening for adults, as it requires laboratories that can conduct a specific test. There are only eight such laboratories in Malawi, according to a report by BBC, and they are dispersed widely across the country.
Matternet is the California-based company that is helping UNICEF design the drones. The drone used in the recent test is less than a meter long, and can carry up to 1kg. It can be controlled using a mobile app. Thus, a health worker requires only a password and a GPS signal to launch one such drone.
Although operational costs are low, each drone is estimated to cost $7,000. In a country where one in 10 people are living with HIV/AIDS however, the Malawian Health Ministry is likely to consider the solution to be worth the price.
“If you delay giving [youngsters]treatment, most of them don’t live beyond two years old,” said Peter Kumpalume, the Malawi Health Minister, in an interview with the BBC. “The earlier the detection and the earlier the intervention, the longer they live and can become productive citizens of the country.”