• One way to fight HIV especially among infants is early diagnoses and consequently early treatment.

    To avail such services, it calls for promptness in the way that medical tests are offered to families with infants across the nation.

    In Africa, this timeliness is not only costly due to poor transport networks but also because health centers are sparse and ill-equipped to meet the high demands.

    Enter the use of drones and these challenges could be a thing of the past, at least in Malawi where the Government and the United Nations children’s fund (UNICEF) have started testing the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones) to explore cost-effective ways of reducing waiting times for HIV testing of infants.

    A small white drone programmed to go to and fro hospital labs and rural health clinics in Malawi, could significantly cut cost and waiting time of testing of HIV among the African children.

    Data from UNAIDS, place Malawi as one of the countries with the highest rates of HIV prevalence in the world and unfortunately, many of those infected are children. In 2014, only 130, 000 youth (half of the number infected) were being treated. In the same year, about 10,000 children died from HIV-related diseases.

    On Monday, (March 14, 2016), the first ever drone flew successfully from a rural clinic to a hospital laboratory in Malawi’s capital, carrying simulated blood samples. It took the drone only 15 minutes to complete the 10-kilometer journey. Hundreds of Malawians cheered as they watched the new technology at work.

    The two-week-long test flights which will continue until Friday, March 18, are aimed at assessing viability including cost and safety, according to UNICEF Malawi.

    In the past, UAVs have been used for surveillance and assessments of disaster, but this is the first known use of UAVs in Africa for improvement of HIV services, officials said.

    Currently, it takes up to 10 weeks to avail results of those tests, which in itself is a challenge for infected infants who would have had a better chance at life if the disease was detected early and treated with antiretroviral therapy as soon as possible.

    An estimated 10 percent of Malawi’s adult population has HIV. Blood samples have to be transported by motorbikes or ambulances for testing and dispatched back to the community health center. There are also delays in blood sample analysis too.

    “HIV is still a barrier to development in Malawi,” says Mahimbo Mdoe, UNICEF Representative in Malawi. “This innovation could be the breakthrough in overcoming transport challenges and associated delays experienced by health workers in remote areas of Malawi.”

    Speaking to Quartz Angela Travis, chief of communication for UNICEF in Malawi, said that the leapfrog technology like that will catalyze the whole system.

    Due to traditional beliefs of flying objects and witchcraft, as well as fear of drones crashing into people’s homes, many Africans- Malawians included- are skeptical about the technology.

    Governments are however more certain and open to the technology that could transform lives in rural areas where delivery of services is slow and poor.

    To demystify such concerns UNICEF organized community forums to answer questions about the drones and HIV tests in general.

    “We took the drone out, let them see it, feel it, let them see it fly. We try to demystify it,” Travis said. “They are still amazed, but I think now the fear factor is gone.”


    Images credit: UNICEF/Bodole