Delivering Care in Rwanda: Utilising the flexibility of drone technology.

Care City Editorial

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Lets take a look at what is happening in Rwanda, as drones are becoming an important part of health care delivery.

Delivering Care in Rwanda

The UPS Foundation, Zipline and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance recently formed a partnership to begin transporting blood and vaccines to rural areas in Rwanda. They’re also working closely with the Rwandan government, whose leadership is actively looking for ways to dispatch vaccines and medicine to its citizens, Gavi spokesperson Frédérique Tissandier said.

During the first phase of the 18-month project, which is expected to begin in mid-August, the UAS will deliver blood to transfusion facilities. The blood will primarily be used to save women experiencing postpartum hemorrhaging, which is a common problem in the country, Gavi Manager of Global Operational Partnerships Mozammil Siddiqui said. After evaluating and determining how well the UAS were operated, how many deliveries were made and how the UAS were perceived, the second phase, which involves delivering rabies vaccine, will begin.

“The global health community is looking for new ways to deliver vaccines, increase coverage and protect children against various diseases,” Tissandier said. “With all the mountains in Rwandait’s hard to get to remote villages. Some places can only be reached by boat. We’re using this partnership to save kids’ lives and protect them from vaccine-preventable disease.”

Time is critical in emergency situations, especially when victims need blood or a rabies vaccine, Siddiqui said. If a child in Rwanda is bitten by a rabid animal, for example, instead of waiting hours to get the necessary vaccine, a UAS can deliver it in about 15 minutes. This type of use is why Gavi has been looking into using drones for vaccine delivery for a few years now. They just needed the right partners to help them move forward, which they found through Zipline and its drone’s capabilities and the UPS Foundation’s logistic expertise.

While drone delivery makes it possible to courier needed vaccines to remote areas in harsh weather, it isn’t without its challenges. Both blood and the vaccines must be kept at a certain temperature during transport, Siddiqui said, or they will be unusable when they arrive. Anyone working with the payloads must be properly trained to ensure the products arrive at the right temperature and that deliveries go smoothly.

Zipline has been developing the UAS, known as Zips, for the last two years, software team lead Ryan Oksenhorn said. The drones have the ability to complete about 150 blood deliveries a day to transfusing facilities in the western half of the country. The development team had to overcome a variety of challenges, such as finding a way to make deliveries without actually landing at the site and creating a UAS designed for this type of long-distance delivery.

“Virtually all emergency medical products are small and lightweight but also high value,” Oksenhorn said, noting clinics that once only received deliveries a few times a year will now receive deliveries a few times a day. “It makes perfect sense to use this technology very cheaply and very quickly to travel long distances. Right now it costs $10,000 to emergency lift someone in a helicopter to go to the hospital if they need blood. For orders of magnitude less money and less time you can deliver the blood with a drone. There’s no need to send several humans in a helicopter. You can send the blood directly to the person who needs it.”

Oksenhorn said the work in Rwanda is just a start and he hopes to see Zips used to deliver blood, vaccines and medication in remote locations all over the world.

In fact, Zipline recently announced it will soon begin flying missions in the U.S., according to the company. Zipline is partnering with Ellumen, ASD Healthcare and Bloodworks Northwest to deliver blood, medicine and medical products to rural/remote communities in Maryland, Nevada and Washington State, including Indian reservations and their surrounding communities. Flights are expected to begin six months after regulatory approval.


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