HIV Test Results Delivered By Drone: U.N. Is Testing It In Malawi

By Dana Sanchez Published: March 15, 2016, 4:14 pm

In Malawi, where 10 percent of adults have HIV, test results can take months to arrive due to vehicle shortages, high fuel costs and poor roads.

Blood samples are normally delivered to labs by ambulance or motorcycle, but deliveries can experience extreme delays, according to the New York City-based  U.N. Children’s Emergency Fund.

UNICEF spends $1.5-million US annually delivering HIV blood samples in Malawi — aprt of the work it does providing long-term humanitarian and developmental assistance to children and mothers in developing countries.

The U.N. is testing using drones as an alternative delivery method to cut waiting time for HIV blood smaple delivery and test results, Globe&Mail reported.

For years, Silicon Valley researchers have been promoting the potential for drone delivery to revolutionize medical testing and supplies in Africa.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 85 percent of roads are inaccessible during the wet season, TheGuardian reported. At Silicon Valley’s Singularity University, researchers hope that drones can become less a military tool and more a tool with practical uses in the developing world.

Sponsored by UNICEF and the Malawi government, a weeklong trial started Monday in the Malawi capital that is the first known use of drones in Africa for improving HIV services, officials said, according to Globe&Mail. Costs will be analyzed once the trial ends.

It takes an average of 11 days to get blood samples from Malawi’s local health
centers to a central HIV testing lab, and another eight weeks for the results to be delivered back. In the interim, some people with the virus move away or lose contact with health officials, which could spell life or death.

The new drone project aims to help thousands of children with HIV. Nearly 40,000 children in Malawi were born to HIV-positive mothers in 2014 and a quarter of the children died from HIV- related diseases. Less than half were receiving medical treatment, Globe&Mail reported.

Drones could be a breakthrough in overcoming the transport problems, said Mahimbo Mdoe, a UNICEF representative in Malawi. “It would be a leap – like going from a land line to a mobile phone,” Mdoe said.

Few regulatory obstacles are expected for drones in Africa – unlike in Europe or North America, where the skies are more crowded and regulations are stricter, Globe&Mail reported. African governments are supportive of drones.

U.S. company Matternet supplied the drones for the Malawi trials this week. The company has been experimenting recently with medical deliveries by drone in developing countries including Haiti, Bhutan and Papua New Guinea.

Redline, another drone project, plans to deliver medical supplies to remote parts of
Rwanda as early as 2017. Read more about it in this AFKInsider report.

The reaction to the drone tests in Malawi has been positive, said Angela Travis, a UNICEF communications specialist, Globe&Mail reported. “It’s very important that (people are) not fearful of the technology.”

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