Drones resuscitate Malawi health sector


Drone delivers medication in Malawi 2

from HILARY KATANDULA in Lilongwe, Malawi
Malawi Bureau
LILONGWE, (CAJ News) – THE year 2023 will forever be a forgettable year for millions of Malawians.

It is synonymous with psychological trauma.

Tropical Cyclone Freddy ripped through homes and smothered scores of people.

It ate out a bigger chunk of an already rickety economy, pushing millions into their lowest depths of poverty. It cost the country about K110 billion (US$63,4 million).

In the most-hit districts, infrastructure for roads, bridges, electrical and sanitation suffered heavy damage.

It was a critical moment where health services were needed the most, either to treat survivors or ensure that those seeking temporary shelter in camps were protected from disease.

However, tens of thousands of people in the hard-hit areas found themselves cut off from access to health facilities, as they were either destroyed or unreachable due to damaged roads.

Cyclone Freddy aggravated the challenges that health facilities in the country already faced.

Transport had already been a challenge with most district health facilities operating with one or two ambulances, in some cases none.

Zomba District, for instance, has less than five operational ambulances.

The damage to roads would make it inaccessible, as explained by Benson Matiki, a Health Surveillance Assistant at Magomero Health Centre.

“The road that leads to Magomero Health Centre was in bad condition in the aftermath of Cyclone Freddy. This affected our access to essential medical supplies such as medicines and vaccines here,” said Matiki.

But this narrative is gradually changing. Malawi adopted the use of drones for medical supplies. In the past two years or so drones have facilitated automated on-demand and timely availability of medical products in different parts of the country.

They fly autonomously and can carry about five kilograms of cargo. The drones can cruise at 110 kilometers per hour.

A drone would zoom above the hospital, release its package attached to a parachute, then zip back to base without landing.

Low access to medical supplies, especially in Malawi’s rural communities, hinder the country’s effective implementation of universal access to healthcare for its citizens.

Since the introduction of drone technology, health delivery has improved greatly in the country.

In Mangochi, the district is boasting of reduced cases of tuberculosis by almost half through drone services.

The district health office now sends medical supplies to Makanjira where the road is in bad shape and takes almost four hours to reach by vehicle. Now, a drone flies there in just under 30 minutes.

“We have a lot of medical supplies to transport but we are limited by the capacity of most of our current drones,” Lanjesi explained.

They cannot carry more than 2 kilograms and that limits the ability to transport a lot more supplies.

“Nevertheless, we have been able to reach areas that have proved to be hard to reach,” Lanjesi said.

On a car, one would take about four hours or more to reach the only medical facility at Chisi Island on Lake Chilwa in Zomba.

One would have to use a vehicle, then a boat to reach the island.

This was, however, simplified and children at the island got the vaccine in time and without any hiccups – thanks to the introduction of drones.

Bernard Ndawala is the hub operator for Swoop Aero.

Malawi’s Swoop Aero hub operator, Bernard Ndawala (left)

He says drones are a new technology that Malawi should embrace in the delivery of medical supplies.

Symon Kondowe is vaccine and supply chain consultant at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

He thinks the emerging technology is ideal in addressing low access to essential medical services.

Following this success story, Malawi is a training hub for drone operators from 28 countries across Africa.

Malawi hosts the African Drone and Data Academy (ADDA) which aims at providing education programmes that advance expertise in drone technology and entrepreneurship.

The programme was officially launched in January2020 at the DaeyangUniversity in Lilongwe but is now hosted at the Malawi University of Science and Technology.

Since its inception, 800 drone technology scientists from different countries have been trained, of which 100 are from Malawi.

Director of Health Technical Support Services in the Ministry of Health, Godfrey Kadewere, acknowledges that use of drones for medical deliveries has eased transport problems in the sector.

Kadewere says drones now operate in over 90 hard-to-reach health facilities in 11 districts in southern and central Malawi.

– CAJ News

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