Drones are speeding-up HIV diagnosis

17th March 2016
Joe Bush

At a time when unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, have hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons – from high profile crashes to the devices being employed as a tool for terrorists – the emerging technology has been in need of a good news story. This has emerged from Malawi as the west African country is employing a custom made UAV to deliver HIV test results – significantly reducing waiting times and ensuring people receive the required treatment more rapidly.

The trial has been undertaken by Unicef, the UN’s children’s charity, where the drone (designed by California-based company Matternet), embarked on a ten kilometre flight from a community health centre to Kamuzu Central Hospital laboratory, while carrying a simulated sample of a HIV test. Should the trial prove cost effective the drones will be able to carry up to 250 tests on one flight.

In rural areas where the transport system is unreliable and fuel is expensive, results are often delayed in reaching their destination, and in some cases don’t get picked up at all. The drones have significant potential to reduce those delays – not to mention being cheaper to operate than motorbikes (the traditional method of collecting and delivering test samples).

Health workers can be trained to complete the 20 minute flights, and the trials have already been approved by the country's health ministry and civil aviation authorities. Around 17,000 children in Malawi suffer from HIV and the quality of their care depends on early diagnosis. A young child may get the virus from a HIV positive mother during pregnancy or birth, or when the mother is breastfeeding, but drugs can reduce the risk of transmission. Only half of the young people with HIV in the country have access to treatment, and their initial diagnosis is often delayed because of the poor state of the roads.

Unlike adults, screening for the virus in children with HIV positive mothers requires specialist laboratories that perform a sophisticated test. There are only eight of them in the country and for many people they are hard to access. This is where drones have the potential to revolutionise the state of healthcare in the country and ultimately, and crucially, save lives.

Malawi Health Minister Peter Kumpalume commented: “If you delay giving youngsters treatment most of them don’t live beyond two years old. So the earlier the detection and the earlier the intervention, the longer they live and become productive citizens of the country.”

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