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Drones improve medical supply chain in Congo

Steve Rogerson
August 21, 2019



Drones have started delivering vaccines to immunise children in remote health facilities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in a collaboration led by Seattle-based non-profit VillageReach.
 
Also involved in the project are the Ministry of Health, Australian autonomous air transport company Swoop Aero and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
 
This month, the first children received vaccines by drone in the DRC. These successful flights, which took place in the north-western province of Équateur, are part of a broader strategy to reach remote populations with vaccines and other medicines called Nouvelle Génération des Chaînes d’Approvisionnement, or NGCA.
 
The drone demonstrations highlight continued innovation to improve health in the middle of the recent public health emergency declaration by the World Health Organisation due to an ebola outbreak.
 
A fleet of drones transported vaccines, syringes and medicines to a hard-to-reach Congolese village called Widjifake with 6500 residents, where children were vaccinated. Each drone flight to Widjifake safely delivered vaccines – maintained at the right temperature for efficacy – in around 20 minutes, expediting what is typically a three-hour journey by road. The drones completed eight flights of 80km each in one day. This is in addition to 42 flights flown over the previous week.
 
Swoop Aero’s drones have vertical take-off and landing capability, which allows them to land directly at the health centre in Widjifake and return to the Provincial Health Division of Equateur with lab samples, data collection forms and requests for medicines needed. The take-off site in Mbandaka is the first drone port in DRC approved by the Civil Aviation Authority.
 
“One of the key focus areas of the National Health Development Plan is to reduce maternal and infant mortality,” said Yuma Ramazani, the DRC’s secretary general for health. “The Ministry of Health welcomes this innovation that facilitates the transport of vaccines and other essential health products through drones to overcome accessibility challenges in Equateur’s hard-to-reach communities. This will bring essential health care closer to the population in order to improve universal health coverage.”
 
Drones represent an additional approach for reaching the last kilometre, bridging the gap between hard-to-reach populations and the vital health products they need. These flights will give the DRC government a clearer picture of how drones could be integrated into the existing health system. The costs and benefits compared with traditional delivery systems will be detailed as well as the changes needed to operationalise this method of transport.
 
“Rivers, forests and difficult roads can be the first barriers to accessing basic health services,” said Emily Bancroft, CEO of VillageReach. “If people overcome these geographical barriers, they may find another: a health centre without vaccines or essential medicines. In partnership with the Ministry of Health, VillageReach is attempting to overcome these barriers head-on, prioritising the accessibility and quality of basic health services for people living in remote villages across the country. We believe drones have significant potential to create the responsive, people-centred supply chains that will ensure access to health care for under-reached populations.”
 
As part of this effort, VillageReach tapped the expertise of Swoop Aero to demonstrate how drones could surpass some of the geographic challenges in the province, including crossing the Congo River and its tributaries.
 
“We are proud to be part of this game-changing project in DRC following our success working with the Ministry of Health and Unicef in Vanuatu,” said Eric Peck, CEO of Swoop Aero. “Our team brings together the knowledge and expertise needed to be able to operate safe, reliable and cost-effective air transport using drones. We’re excited to be able to demonstrate our expertise to the DRC Ministry of Health, and share our vision for equitable access to healthcare.”
 
Based on the initial demonstration flights, VillageReach and its partners see the potential to improve access to vaccines and other health products, increasing equity to people least served by the existing system. The next step is to secure continued funding to assess the costs and benefits of using this technology and developing the operational model needed to provide and sustain routine transport of vaccines, medicines and other medical commodities to remote areas of Equateur.
 
“The coverage rate for routine immunisation in DRC is extremely low and the Ministry of Health has declared a health emergency to work to improve it,” said Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi. “Coincidently, DRC is experiencing an unprecedented series of deadly disease outbreaks, which are all symptoms of poor coverage, weak health systems, lack of infrastructure and broader health issues in the country. Drones have the potential to help reach the unreached and ensure that more children in the DRC are protected against vaccine-preventable diseases. Integrated within a strong and sustainable routine immunisation programme, these innovations can help tackle the current outbreaks that the country is experiencing.”
 
VillageReach is a non-profit organisation that works with governments to solve health care delivery problems in low-resource communities. Its programmes focus on increasing access to quality health care at the last kilometre, or the point at which services are delivered. Its work improves the lives of more than 30 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.
 
Photo: Henry Sempangi Sanyulye/VillageReach