For the First Time Ever Drones Delivered Meds to Remote Islands

With 20 percent of children in Vanuatu not fully immunized, using drones will make a huge difference.

Mar 17, 2019

Joy Nowai, a one-month-old baby, became the first child immunized by a vaccine that was drone-delivered on the remote island of Erromango in Vanuatu, an island country west of Fiji in the South Pacific. And a joint program between UNICEF and the government of Vanuatu made it happen.

The drone carrying the vaccine crossed 40 km of rugged mountainous terrain from Dillon’s Bay on the west side of the island to the east landing in remote Cook’s Bay, where according to a UNICEF press release, 13 children and five pregnant women were waiting for the immunizations.

Cook's Bay is a small scattered community that doesn't have a health clinic or electricity and is only accessible on foot or by small boats. With one-in-five children not fully vaccinated in Vanuatu, drones will make a big difference in inaccessible communities like Cook’s Bay.

“Today’s small flight by drone is a big leap for global health,” said Henrietta H. Fore, UNICEF's executive director. “With the world still struggling to immunize the hardest to reach children, drone technologies can be a game changer for bridging that last mile to reach every child.”

Vaccines are not easy to transport because they have to be kept at specific temperatures. The warm climate and the topography of Vanuatu, which is made up of 80 remote islands stretching over 1,300 kilometers with few roads, make vaccine delivery very difficult.

“It’s extremely hard to carry ice boxes to keep the vaccines cool while walking across rivers, mountains, through the rain, across rocky ledges. I’ve relied on boats, which often get cancelled due to bad weather,” said Miriam Nampil, a registered nurse that gives the vaccines. 

”As the journey is often long and difficult, I can only go there once a month to vaccinate children. But now, with these drones, we can hope to reach many more children in the remotest areas of the island.”

The vaccines were carried in Styrofoam coolers with ice-packs and a temperature logger that indicated if the temperature of the vaccines went out of the usable range. The vaccines were delivered by the commercial drone company Swoop Aero.

The Australian drone operator was selected after a bidding process and is held accountable if it doesn't deliver. The company only gets paid if the vaccines are delivered successfully. “It’s the first commercially sustainable system,” Shelton Yett, the Pacific representative for UNICEF told Fast Company.

The government of Vanuatu is looking to incorporate drone delivery into their national immunization program and also to distribute other medical supplies. The results of the trials could be used to set up drone programs in other remote areas.

“Today’s first-of-a-kind vaccine delivery has enormous potential not only for Vanuatu, but also for the thousands of children who are missing out on vaccines across the world,” Fore said. “This is innovation at its best and shows how we can unlock the potential of the private sector for the greater good of the world’s children.”

Drones have been successfully used to deliver health care supplies in other places before. In 2016, the Californian company Zipline was employed by the Rwandan government to deliver blood, plasma, and platelets to health centers. Zipline spokesman Justin Hamilton told NPR that the drones have successfully delivered thousands of units of blood to 19 hospitals and will start delivering vaccines in the country too. Ghana has just signed an agreement with Zipline to deliver medical supplies from four different bases.

When the first trials end, the government of Vanuatu will decide if it wants to progress to the next stage and train local drone operators. It is even possible that the drones could be 3-D printed locally, according to Fast Company. But the technology isn't the only thing needed according to Yett; parents have to be educated on why vaccinations are important, and more nurses have to be trained.

Using drones to deliver urgently needed medications and vaccinations may only be part of the solution but is a great step forward in making healthcare accessible to even the most remote areas of the world.

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BONNIE RIVA RAS, EDITOR & WRITER
Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.

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