Impact of Drone Technology on Healthcare on the African Continent

Drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), are mini aircraft that can be flown autonomously. UAVs have a ground-based controller and a system of communications that enables a human on the ground to pilot them. They’ve got an autopilot feature that offers them a certain level of autonomy. In the last 5 years, drone technology has made significant advances in a number of industries.

While they differ in sizes, drones are usually smaller than regular aircraft, and because of their size, they serve various purposes. This ranges from undercover surveillance coverage to deliveries, policing, aerial photography, and weapons delivery for the military to hot battle zones. 

Drone Technology
Modern Drone Technology

More recently, there is increased adoption in healthcare. If there’s any sector where speed and promptness sit as top priorities, then it’s healthcare. This is primarily because lives are at stake. In other parts of the world, drones are deployed to help deliver medical supplies. 

After Haiti was hit by the 2010 Earthquake that rendered many homeless and helpless, ambulances and relief agencies could not reach many places. So, a start-up called Matternet implemented the use of drones to deliver medications and food to camps. It was a very effective strategy that saved thousands. Matternet also used drones in the Dominican Republic, transporting medical supplies and diagnostic tools from more prominent healthcare centres to smaller healthcare centres in rural areas. 

The adoption of drone technology has created giant strides globally in the healthcare industry, with Africa leading the way for other continents like Europe and Asia. According to the World Bank, Sub-Saharan Africa has the worst healthcare system globally and has nearly a quarter of disabilities and deaths resulting from diseases. One would assume that such part of the world would have a prompt and efficient healthcare system to tackle this issue; however, the reverse is the case. Sub-Saharan Africa has only 1% of global health expenditures and is home to 3% of international healthcare practitioners.

In a bid to fix the continent’s health-associated problems, start-ups and individuals have launched many schemes and apps to help tackle these healthcare issues. A few of these examples are listed below: 

  1. PeleBox: A smart locker system that dispenses drugs to patients with severe illnesses under 22 seconds. 
  1. The Omomi App: A mobile application that helps mothers in Nigeria follow their Children’s health with doctors while paying consultation fees of as low as $0.5 per consultation. 
  1. The Matibabu App: A device and mobile application used in Uganda that allows the diagnosis of Malaria under two minutes without a blood sample. 

When it comes to the usage of drone technology in Africa, Rwanda is the pioneer nation. Located in Central Africa, the country has a population of around 12 million people. Rwanda is popularly known for the genocide occurrence in 1994, with hundreds of thousands murdered by their fellow countrymen. Like the legendary phoenix, today Rwanda has risen from the ashes that once plagued its people. She has gone ahead to build a masterpiece from ruins, making it one of the jewels of the continent. 

In 2016, Rwanda began to deliver blood supply with drones outside the nation’s capital, Kigali, with a service conventionally known as ‘Uber for Blood.’ This was possible with the help of Zipline, a company located in California and whose primary work was in the nation. 

With this model, a doctor sends in their order to Zipline via a WhatsApp message. Then, they wait for about twenty to forty minutes, irrespective of how far the clinic is, for the package to arrive. A drone drops it off in a location close to the clinic, making it seamless for the healthcare worker to retrieve. The main reason for this is that Rwanda is known for its mountainous landscape; hence, vehicular transport between cities isn’t as seamless as in other parts of the world. With Zipline, however, each hospital never ran short of blood supply. This program was responsible for distributing over 20% of the entire nation’s blood supply in that year. Today, drones supply all the blood outside Kigali.

Following the outstanding success of Zipline in Rwanda, they expanded their program to Tanzania in 2017. Tanzania, a nation 35 times the size of Rwanda, has only a paltry 8% of its road tarred, making it even more challenging to deliver medical supplies. However, Zipline has been able to help in the delivery of vaccines, antiretrovirals for HIV, transplant organs, antibiotics, surgical supplies, antimalarials, and emergency medical supplies. 

The biggest success story of Zipline on the continent, however, is in Ghana. Since 2019 when it first entered the West African nation, it has helped to complete the distribution of over 450,000 medical commodities in over 50,000 deliveries. In 2020, they were also able to deliver approximately one million routine vaccine doses. In the same year, Zipline’s drones served to distribute Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to Electoral workers to be worn during the presidential elections, making them safe from the COVID-19 virus. 

By February this year, Ghana received 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine from India. After receiving them, the government deployed drones to transport some of these vaccines to other parts of the nation. This makes Ghana the first country in the world to deploy drones on a national scale to deliver COVID-19 vaccines.

However, there is still much work to be done, especially in the continent of Africa. Without any doubt, the use of drones will improve the health sector of most African nations. This is due to the numerous challenges the health sector faces, such as a lack of proper medical facilities and good road networks to help transport patients to the clinics in record time. African nations need to employ this as a means to save lives.

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