Using drones could offer a cheaper way to deliver vaccines and improve vaccination rates in developing countries, according to a study led by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH) and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Centre.

According to the study published in the journal Vaccine, cost savings would come from drones being able to deliver vaccines more quickly and cheaply than by land-based transportation, which are limited by road conditions and have high fuel and maintenance costs.

“Many low- and middle-income countries are struggling to get lifesaving vaccines to people to keep them from getting sick or dying from preventable diseases,” said Senior Author and Associate Professor at JHSPH, Bruce Lee.

“You make all these vaccines but they’re of no value if we don’t get them to the people who need them. So there is an urgent need to find new, cost effective ways to do this,” continued Prof Lee.

For their study, the researchers used a computer model to simulate a land-based transportation system and compared it with an unmanned drone system for delivering vaccines as part of an immunisation programme in Mozambique.

They found that using drones to get vaccines to the vaccination locations could slightly improve vaccine availability and potentially immunise 96% of the target population as compared to 94% using land-based transport. The results showed a 20% cost savings.

The study showed that drones can bypass the challenges of existing transportation and improve the efficiency of health supply chains and provide reliable access to medical products, irrespective of where the patient resides.

Supply chain inefficiencies can mean that many vaccines don’t even reach the people who need them.

According to the study, non-vaccine costs of routine immunisations are expected to rise by 80% between 2010 and 2020, with more than one-third of costs attributable to supply chain logistics.

While unmanned drones have boomed in recent years, little has been known whether this is a cost-effective use of the technology. However this has not slowed down the uptake of the technology.

Drones have been used for surveillance and in humanitarian aid delivery and are now being developed to transport medical samples and supplies.

Currently drones are being tested for medical supply deliveries in Rwanda and in Papua New Guinea. UNICEF is testing the feasibility of using them to transport lab samples in Malawi. And in Brazil, the technology is being used to detect and destroy the mosquito responsible for the spread of the Zika virus.

“Assuming that drones are reliable, are capable of making the necessary trips and have properly trained operators, they could be a less expensive means of transporting vaccines, especially in remote areas,” said Prof Lee.

“They could be particularly valuable when there are more demand for certain vaccines than anticipated and immunisation locations must place urgent orders,” concluded Prof Lee.

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