This month, Botswana became the first country in Southern Africa, and the third in Africa, to pilot drone technology for health-care delivery. The Drones for Health pilot project aims to reduce preventable maternal deaths by delivering maternal health supplies and commodities – including essential obstetric care drugs, blood, blood products and laboratory specimens – particularly in hard-to-reach communities and health facilities.
UNFPA is partnering on the initiative, along with Botswana’s Ministry of Health and Wellness, the Ministry of Tertiary Education, Research, Science and Technology, and Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST).
“Women experience massive blood loss due to haemorrhage during childbirth, with many of them requiring a blood transfusion,” said Beatrice Mutali, the UNFPA country director in Botswana, at the launch of the initiative. “Blood and blood-based products are therefore critical.”
Botswana has a maternal mortality ratio that is almost double the average for upper-middle income countries – 144 per 100,000 live births according to 2017 UN data, or at 166 deaths per 100,000 live births according to 2019 government data. The main causes of maternal deaths in Botswana are postpartum haemorrhage, complications after abortion and hypertensive disorders during pregnancy.
To provide life-saving emergency obstetric care, health facilities must be equipped with the supplies and skills needed to handle such emergencies. Medication can effectively treat post-partum haemorrhage and hypertensive issues like eclampsia, for instance, but in this large and sparsely populated country, delivery of such medical supplies is often a challenge.
“The need to invest in innovative options to bridge the long distances, reduce current transportation costs, overcome road infrastructure challenges, and improve timely availability of essential emergency obstetric care drugs, commodities and supplies is therefore urgent,” said Dr. Edwin Gorataone Dikoloti, Botswana’s Minister of Health and Wellness.
“The sustainable reduction of maternal, newborn and child deaths and overall improvement of health care in general, including sexual, reproductive and adolescent health, remains a high priority for the Government of Botswana,” said Dr. Dikoloti.
Slashing delivery times
The use of drones to deliver essential medical supplies is expected to reduce the delivery time from hours to minutes, meaning that obstetric emergency supplies could arrive in time to save lives, according to BIUST Vice Chancellor, Professor Otlogetswe Totolo.
Each battery-powered drone has a delivery distance of 100 km and can carry cargo with a weight of up to 2kg at a time.
Four villages were involved in the pilot project: Lecheng, 32 km from Palapye by road and 11 km via drone; Mokgware, with a distance of 55 km by road and 32 km by drone; Mogapi, 108 km away by road and 75 km via drone; and Moremi, 75 km away by road and 36 km via drone.
Community members in the pilot areas have supported the project by building landing pads at designated health posts. UNFPA provided seed funding for the project. Successful test runs have been carried out in all four targeted villages, with the drones delivering dummy specimens.
Transforming health care
The Drones for Health initiative, which was conceived in 2018, is being implemented in three phases. Phases I and II are dedicated to proof-of-concept and viability testing.
Following a successful rollout, Phase III will involve the development of the business model, identify sustainable partnerships, and the scale up and transfer of innovation solutions to the Ministry of Wellness and Health.
“Technology and digitally driven solutions have the potential to transform health care, particularly for women and girls in underserved communities, often left behind due to geographical proximity…as they live in hard-to-reach areas,” said Ms. Mutali.