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Malawi, 14 March 2016: Testing unmanned aerial vehicle flights for HIV early infant diagnosis

© UNICEF/2016/Khonje
Children look on as UNICEF and the Government of Malawi test the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to reduce waiting times of infant HIV tests.

LILONGWE, Malawi, 14 March 2016 – The Government of Malawi and 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.

The first successful test flight completed the 10 km route unhindered travelling from a community health centre to the Kamuzu Central Hospital laboratory. The local residents gathered in amazement as the vehicle took off and flew away in the direction of the hospital. The test flights, which are assessing viability including cost and safety, will continue until Friday, March 18.

UAVs have been used in the past for surveillance and assessments of disaster, but this is the first known use of them on the continent for improvement of HIV services.

“HIV is still an important barrier to development in Malawi, and every year around 10,000 children die of HIV. This innovation, which transports dried blood samples from infants, could bring a breakthrough in overcoming transport challenges and associated delays experienced by health workers in remote areas of Malawi,” says Mahimbo Mdoe, UNICEF Malawi Country Representative. “In 2014, nearly 40,000 children in Malawi were born to HIV positive mothers. Quality care of these children depends on early diagnosis, which requires taking blood samples from the health centre to the central laboratory for testing. We hope that UAVs can help in massively reducing the transportation time and ensure that children who need it, start their treatment early.”

© UNICEF/2016/Khonje
A Lab technician taking a blood sample from a baby for HIV testing.

In 2014, around 10,000 children in Malawi died from HIV-related diseases and only 49 per cent of children were treated. It currently takes an average of 11 days to get samples from health centre to a testing lab, and up to four weeks for the results to be delivered back. The longer the delay between test and results, the higher the default rate of the patient.

Minister of Health Dr. Peter Kumpalume said the Malawi Government is committed to the prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV. “Malawi has pioneered a number of innovations in the delivery of HIV services including the Option B+ policy which puts mothers on a simple, lifelong treatment regime. We have also pioneered the delivery of results from the central laboratory to the health facilities through text messages. We believe our partnering with UNICEF to test UAVs is another innovation and will help in our drive to achieve the country’s goals in HIV prevention and treatment.”
 

Background

Malawi has a national HIV prevalence rate of 10 per cent – still one of the highest in the world. An estimated 1 million Malawians were living with HIV in 2013 and 48,000 died from HIV-related illnesses in the same year.

Whilst progress has been made, and today 90 per cent of pregnant women know their HIV status, there is still a drop off with testing and treatment of babies and children.

Samples are currently transported by road – either by motorbike or local authority ambulances. Various factors, including the high cost of diesel fuel, poor state of roads and limited distribution schedules, have resulted in extreme delays in lab sample transport, constituting a significant impediment for the scaling up of paediatric ART’s effectiveness.

Currently, the time taken to get from healthcare facility to the lab is 11 days, and time taken to return the results by road can take as long as 4 weeks.

The UAV flights are supported by the US company, Matternet. After the test flights, the cost comparison with road transport will be done, and if favourable, the second phase will carry out test flights from remote areas of the country.

 

About UNICEF
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For more information please contact:
Malawi: Angela Travis, atravis@unicef.org or +265 999 964208 or Doreen Matonga, dmatonga@unicef.org or +265 888 891 980
Johannesburg: Sue Beukes, smbeukes@unicef.org or +27 79 495 5935
Nairobi: Ricardo Pires, rpires@unicef.org or +254 701 635 021

 

 
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