Drones And HIV: Antiretroviral Delivery To African Nations


Considered to be a breakthrough in medical delivery, drones are now being used to transport antiretroviral medications from urban hospitals to rural labs to treat civilians infected with HIV/AIDS.

Last week, UNICEF and the government of Malawi joined together for a pilot program to test whether these drones can deliver antiretroviral to families on time. Malawi is one of the nations with the highest rates of HIV infections. In 2014, UNAIDS reported 1,100,000 Malawians were infected with HIV. Quite a large chunk of that number is made up of children. 930,000 victims were aged 15 and over while 130,000 victims were aged 0-14. Approximately 10,000 children succumbed to HIV-related diseases in 2014.

The drones are also intended to transport blood samples from the patients to the hospitals. According to Quartz, receiving the results of the blood tests can take approximately ten weeks. This waiting period creates a problem for infected children, as they require medicine as soon as possible for a better chance of survival. Before the drones, blood samples were transported to the hospital by car. However, the lab would wait up to two weeks until they had enough samples to send to the hospital. The drones are intended to override this delay. Quartz also reported that “With drone delivery, those two months could be reduced to days.”

The drones were tested in various weather conditions and were moving back and forth between communities and medical centres in rural Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital. According to the Globe and Mail, it took the drone 15 minutes to complete a 10-kilometre journey.

The pilot tests were also done to compare the costs of operating the drones versus the cost of transportation on land. UNICEF noted that, although the traditional delivery method requires paying for fuel and drivers, the drones will require electricity to charge the batteries. They have not been able to give an estimate of the cost, but it has been reported that UNICEF will have this information ready by April. The UN is reportedly spending up to $1.5-million USD annually for this program.

Besides the cost, one issue that has arisen with the use of drones is safety. Drones are commonly used in warfare as they can go unnoticed and it is not man-operated. As well, since they are unmanned, any electrical problems may cause the drones to crash. Many African governments are still open to this idea of using the drones, though, this is mainly because their airspace is not restricted by regulations like the airspace of many Western states are. After all, the first ever drone airport is being built in Rwanda.

Another problem is getting the civilians use to the devices. Flying objects are considered to be a part of witchcraft, and so getting people to get over this superstition is an obstacle. The Globe and Mail reported that project members dismantled the drones and allowed the locals to hold them. “One government minister told a Malawian audience that the drones are nothing to do with traditional beliefs about flying creatures that can cast spells on people…‘It’s very important that they’re not fearful of the technology.’” If this project remains successful, it is more likely to be implemented throughout the continent, in hopes of reducing the number of preventable deaths.

Neelam Champaneri