The future is here! I hope you are as excited as I am! Over the last few days, the Malawi Government and Unicef have been testing whether Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) can reduce the cost and waiting time for HIV tests for kids. UAV, also known as drones, are tiny planes (about the size of a toy) that have no human on board and are controlled remotely. Pretty cool, right?
It takes close to two months from HIV testing of an infant to the results being returned. With such a long wait time, the likelihood that people return for the results diminishes. There are a number of reasons why it takes that long: poor road networks, high cost of fuel, health centres long distances away from testing labs, lack of resources etc….the usual long list of challenges of Malawi’s health system but this contributes to around 10 000 children dying every year of HIV in Malawi. Faster diagnosis can allow for quicker treatment.
According to Unicef in 2014, nearly 40 000 children in Malawi were born to HIV positive mothers. Testing requires taking blood dried samples from health centres to a central testing lab—reducing the waiting time could significantly improve the quality of care for these infants.
UAVs are used in surveillance, disaster relief, warfare—however, this may well be the first time they are used in HIV services and Malawi is the first country on the continent to do so. Well done Malawi! It’s a huge innovation and I look forward to the results of the test but having said that, government still needs to invest in infrastructure. Unless teleporting becomes a reality, people will still need to travel over road, rail or air.
Malawi is no stranger to innovation in HIV services. Option B+ lifelong ART which is provided to all pregnant and breastfeeding women living with HIV regardless of CD4 count was pioneered in Malawi and is globally recognised. Clinical trials have also been conducted in Malawi for saliva home test kits and also the use of text messaging from lab to health facility.
If the UAV is proven successful, it will not come without challenges. Power, getting buy-in from communities that may think UAVs are a version of a flying witch, maintenance and theft—remember they are unmanned! However they open up huge potential. UAVs can spurn new jobs, new skills in technology – imagine having UAV competitions at the Polytechnic! And most importantly, the improved quality of care of infants diagnosed with HIV. I look forward to hearing about the results of the first phase.