The Government of Malawi and UNICEF have started testing the use of drones to explore cost effective ways of reducing waiting times for HIV testing of infants.

Malawi has a national HIV prevalence rate of 10%, one of the highest in the world. In 2014, around 10,000 children in Malawi died from HIV-related diseases and less than half of all children were on treatment.

It currently takes an average of 11 days to get samples from a health centre to a testing lab, and up to eight weeks for the results to be delivered back. The longer the delay between test and results, the higher the default rate of the patient. The use of drones could cut waiting times dramatically.

The first successful drone test flight completed a 10km route travelling from a community health centre to the Kamuzu Central Hospital laboratory.

The drone flights are supported by US-based company, Matternet, who created the drones being used in the test, which are designed exclusively for transportation.

The second phase will carry out test flights from remote areas of the country. After which a cost comparison with road transport will be done, and if favourable, the use of drones will be integrated into the health system alongside other mechanisms such as road transport and SMS.

Drones have been used in the past for surveillance and assessments of disaster, and recently the Rwandan government revealed plans to use drones to deliver medical supplies to health facilities across the country. This UNICEF initiative in Malawi, however, is the first known use of drones to improve HIV services on the continent.

“HIV is still a barrier to development in Malawi, and every year around 10,000 children die of HIV,” said UNICEF Representative in Malawi, Mahimbo Mdoe. “This innovation could be the breakthrough in overcoming transport challenges and associated delays experienced by health workers in remote areas of Malawi.”

“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 dried blood samples from the health centre to the central laboratory for testing. We hope that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) can be part of the solution to reduce transportation time and ensure that children who need it, start their treatment early,” continued Mdoe.

On the new drone initiative, the Malawi Minister of Health, Dr Peter Kumpalume, said: “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.”

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