In December of 2018, Vanuatu made headlines as the first nation to receive a vaccination delivered by a drone. Vanuatu is a remote island off the coast of Australia, directly west of Fiji, made up of more than 70 smaller islands. After winning their independence from Britain and France in 1980, many of the islanders maintain their traditional Melanesian culture and lifestyle with an economy revolving around fishing, agriculture and tourism.
Vaccines to Vanuatu
Most villages scattered across Vanuatu are only accessible by boat or mountain footpath, which makes it difficult to deliver vaccines in a timely and safe manner. Vaccines must be kept at precise temperatures, which the warm, wet climate of Vanuatu makes especially difficult. However, technology is making healthcare possible, even on the small island of Vanuatu.
An Australian-based drone company, Swoop Aero, is working to deliver vaccines to Vanuatu. This is the first time the Vanuatu government, or any government for that matter, has contracted a drone company. Funded by UNICEF and the Australian government, Swoop Aero’s mission is to provide networks of autonomous drones to transport medical supplies, on-demand, to the people who need them most. Currently, 85 percent of the world has access to vaccines; if used correctly, drones will increase this figure to 95 percent vaccine coverage worldwide.
Success at Cook’s Bay
Also in December, Swoop Aero held their first trial run to a small village in Vanuatu called Cook’s Bay. Their drone traveled 25 miles to deliver hepatitis and tuberculosis (TB) vaccines to a one-month-old baby named Joy Nowai. She became the first person ever to receive vaccines from a drone. Almost 20 percent of children in Vanuatu under 5-years-old lack access to life-saving vaccines, but after a successful trial flight by Swoop Aero, drones will continue to bring vaccines to Vanuatu.
Here are some other ways drones are helping to improve healthcare:
- A U.S. drone company called Zipline currently delivers blood and other medical supplies to doctors in Ghana and Rwanda. Zipline is planning to start delivering vaccines, specifically rabies vaccines, to Ghana and Rwanda in 2019.
- UNICEF is running a humanitarian drone test corridor in Malawi. After being tested, these drones will be able to transport blood samples between hospitals to speed up HIV diagnoses, especially in infants, and deliver other humanitarian and medical supplies to doctors.
- Drones are speeding up tuberculosis (TB) testing in Papua New Guinea. Fast diagnoses are essential to curing TB, and in Papua New Guinea, a country with dense jungles and rough roads; this is especially difficult to manage. Drones quickly transport diagnostic samples from remote health centers to hospitals and laboratories, allowing for a quick diagnosis and treatment for the patient.
Increasing Access to Healthcare, One Drone at a Time
In this new age of technology, drones are providing unprecedented levels of access to medical supplies, including vaccines, lab testing and blood samples. After a successful trial run delivering vaccines to Vanuatu, Swoop Aero, UNICEF and other drone companies like Zipline are looking forward to a time when 100 percent of people will have access to medical supplies and healthcare.
– Natalie Dell