Imagine this: you have a cough. At first it’s annoying, but you try to ignore it. It grows more persistent and you start worrying about getting your kids sick, so you decide to go see a health professional. Now imagine the nearest clinic is 10 kilometres away or more — and even though you’re coughing and tired, you have to walk or ride a bike to get there. You have taken time away from work and used precious financial resources to get to the clinic. Once you arrive, the health worker decides to test you for tuberculosis (TB), and says to return in 2–3 weeks for your results, as the health facility does not have a laboratory on-site.
The day of your follow-up arrives, and you again make the 10 kilometre trip back to the clinic. But there is only disappointing news: they couldn’t get the specimen to the laboratory fast enough, and therefore the test could not be conducted. They recommend that you travel even further to a different facility and repeat the test. Meanwhile, your family have also started coughing. Feel frustrated? Or hopeless? This is a reality that VillageReach along with DFID Mozambique, Ministry of Health, and other partners are trying to change in rural Mozambique.
And we are doing it using drones.
The solution: delivery by drone.
Until recently, using drones — or UAS (unmanned aerial systems) — to deliver lab samples or other small health commodities seemed like a far-fetched fantasy. But VillageReach believes that drones have the potential to improve health care delivery in Mozambique.
A new program, UAS4TB, looks at how this flying technology could get families the results of their TB tests faster. Improving case detection of TB is of vital importance in Mozambique, a country with among the highest incidence and prevalence rates of the disease. But timeliness is critical when testing for TB, as samples require proper storage and even then, are at risk for spoiling if not tested quickly. Drone technology will enable fast transport of samples from the most rural health facilities to laboratories and contribute to reduced turnaround times, which will motivate health workers and benefit the communities with faster access to treatment.
Drone technology has a unique ability to solve specific challenges to transporting lab samples and other health commodities. Mozambique is a large country with 35,406 kilometres of roadways, nearly 80 percent of them unpaved. Road conditions outside cities can be hazardous, and the rainy season only makes them worse. Traveling to some parts of the country requires boat trips, navigating uneven dirt roads and sometimes walking on foot. Worse yet, at some times of the year there are health facilities that are completely inaccessible by any traditional mode of transportation. Drones, on the other hand, bypass these hurdles by simply flying over them.
With leadership from organisations like UKAid, who are supporting work to bring ideas to life using drones (as referenced by DFIDs Sam Sherman’s ’’Using drones to deliver critical humanitarian aid’’), pioneering countries like Mozambique are developing clear guidelines and welcoming demonstrations of UAVs to design logistics and transportation solutions for vaccines and other products to reach the last mile.
Africa as a continent is leading the way in studying the impact of drones in sectors such as humanitarian, wildlife conservation, and health. Countries like Malawi, Rwanda and Madagascar are blazing a trail for us to understand the best use cases for drones on the continent.
This new program in Mozambique is building off these findings to understand if drones can be used in specimen referral networks to simplify and strengthen the process of getting samples and results from one place to another.
We envision UAVs as one component of a multi-modal transportation network, allowing us access to areas that are at times cut off, or to move items faster that require long and arduous trips. We believe that drone technology uniquely resolves specific gaps in current healthcare transport in Mozambique and will enable equitable access to quality health for Mozambique’s rural community.