Uganda is distributing HIV medicine via drone in an archipelago off the coast of Lake Victoria as part of a pilot effort to improve medical supply transportation for the country’s health system, which is plagued by chronic shortages.
The trial is being run by the government-sponsored Infectious Diseases Institute and is being funded by Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N). It transports HIV medications from a hospital to patients in Kalangala’s 84-island archipelago’s remote hamlets.
Drones are already being used in other African countries, such as Ghana and Rwanda, to improve healthcare delivery.
If the study is successful, it might be used on a broader scale to help Uganda’s public healthcare system improve the delivery of drugs and medical supplies, which is plagued by understaffing and shortages of basic medicines such as vaccinations and other drugs, as well as medical supplies.
The high HIV rate in Kalangala, which is estimated to be around 27% of the population on the islands, is due in part to nomadic fishers who wander from island to island.
Storms frequently hinder deliveries of HIV medicines to the islands via boat.
“We’ve had a problem with wind storms… medical teams wouldn’t make it over here, and some people wouldn’t get their much-needed medical supplies,” Innocent Tushemerirwe, a local health team leader, told Reuters.
“The boats are very expensive and also quite risky,” Rosalind Parkes-Ratanshi, director of the institute’s Academy for Health Innovation and project leader, said. “There are a lot of drownings in Kalangala.”
“We thought this might be a cost-effective and safe approach to get antiretroviral treatment to HIV-positive patients living on the islands.”
The drones can fly in gusts up to 15 metres per second and severe rain, but the study team is limiting this to 5 metres per second and mild to medium rain for safety reasons.
Drones also shorten delivery times, making it easier to discover calm weather windows.
WeRobotics, a Swiss-based organisation that utilises robots, analytics, and artificial intelligence to solve problems in more than 30 developing nations, customised the DJI M300 drones for the programme with detachable white cargo boxes, operation software, and a piloting app.
The experimental programme, which is currently solely delivering antiretrovirals, will run through June, after which it will be evaluated. The team is also examining whether the drones may fly around samples for HIV, TB, or COVID-19 testing, according to Parkes-Ratanshi.