Revolutionary technology for lifesaving vaccine deliveries

Vanuatu could be first in the Pacific to chart a new course for vaccine delivery

Imagine the disappointment of thirty-two year old, Shirley Mabon. She had just walked a full day with her six month old baby, Matan, from the east of Pentecost Island, Vanuatu, to Tsingbwege Dispensary in the central area for her baby’s health check and immunisation only to find that Baby Matan cannot be vaccinated. The supply of vaccines from Melsisi Health Centre had not arrived.

Every month Shirley takes Matan, for the baby’s regular health check-up and to ensure that Matan receives her vaccinations on time. She has to trek through bush and muddy paths to reach the nearest dispensary, Tsingbegwe. Not an easy task especially in hot and humid weather, with an almost ten kilogram baby.

A nurse administers a shot during this baby’s clinic.

This can take up to a full day depending on a variety of factors including the weather, and if she has at least VT 5,000 (approximately USD 50) to get on a truck part of the way — which most of the time she would not. If unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones succeed in delivering vaccines and prove a cost effective transport alternative in Vanuatu, then all that will change from 2018.

UNICEF is working with the government of Vanuatu on a ground-breaking project that could improve vaccination coverage and save lives through the delivery of vaccines to inaccessible remote areas and outer islands in Vanuatu. From July this year, drone technology will be trialled on the island of Efate, where the capital Port Vila lies.

“UNICEF is excited to support the Civil Aviation Authority of Vanuatu and the Ministry of Health in field testing the safe delivery of vaccines by drone. Should it work and be cost effective there will be considerable benefits for children and communities not only in Vanuatu but the other 13 Pacific Island Countries we cover,” said UNICEF Pacific Representative, Sheldon Yett.

If children don’t receive their vaccines on a timely basis, they are susceptible to life-threatening diseases such as pneumonia, whopping cough, measles and polio.

“Apart from the logistical challenges in vaccine delivery, stock outs of vaccines due to unreliable supply chains continues to be a challenge. Other challenges include vaccines not being potent because of cold storage issues,” said Mr Yett.

“In Vanuatu and elsewhere in the Pacific, navigating a small boat in the open seas is often the only way to get vaccines to health centres. If we can find a way to safely and affordably transport them by drone to outer islands and other remote locations, we could remove a logistical bottleneck, helping to ensure that more children are vaccinated,” ,” he added.

The use of drones will give children the vaccinations they need to ensure they grow healthy and strong. Drones could also create a faster, reliable and low cost option to ensure vaccines and other medical supplies reach communities anytime and anywhere in Vanuatu.

A child being immunized during health clinic days in Vanuatu.

Pentecost Island is known as the home of land-diving that created bungie-jumping. But soon it could also be known as one of the first islands in Vanuatu to succeed in vaccine delivery via drones. Then Shirley and her baby Matan would be one of the lucky ones to benefit from the introduction of this revolutionary technology.

By Donna Hoerder— UNICEF Pacific

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