Life-saving drones; balancing aviation safety with emergency medical care

CAPE TOWN — The utility of drones in furthering the reach of healthcare in deep rural areas is being proven in Tanzania where more than 8,000 patients living on remote islands in Lake Victoria are receiving often life-saving care through fast, remote-controlled air deliveries of medical supplies. Less restricted than countries with numerous airports and commercial airline routes which require strict legislation to regulate the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s), Tanzanian authorities are working with two high-tech German drone companies to revolutionise medical services in East Africa. They currently deliver medical loads of up to six kilograms in a 40-minute flight which can save the life of a mother losing blood in childbirth or victims of poisonous snake bites, for example. Applications for medical drones include vaccines for disease outbreaks, plasma or blood, rabies-immune globulin or drugs for anaphylactic reactions to bee stings. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa could have been contained more quickly had drones and skilled operators been available. South Africa has similar capacity via Denel and a few leading private companies with drones being used for geo-mapping, mineral exploration, agriculture and nature conservation and, to a lesser extent, in medicine. However strict Civil Aviation laws require special exception for operators who need almost the equivalent of a commercial pilot’s licence to operate beyond line-of-sight. The legislation is currently being fine-tuned to facilitate better emergency rural medicine. – Chris Bateman

By Ken Karuri

(Bloomberg) – Blood and medicine-filled drones swoop over Lake Victoria, bringing vital care to some of Tanzania’s most remote places.

That’s the goal of the state-owned Commission for Science and Technology, or Costech, which since late 2017 has carried out dozens of drone flights in collaboration with Wingcopter and Deutsche Post AG’s DHL to Ukerewe, the lake’s biggest island. Echoing an initiative in nearby Rwanda, the pilot project has already reached more than 8,000 patients and could help revolutionize medical services in East Africa’s largest country.

“We were able to deliver anti-venom to farmers who had been bitten by snakes and needed medical care quickly to avoid amputation of their limbs, or even death,” said George Mulamula, project head at Costech. The next stage, he said, is to secure funding to increase the drones’ medical loads to 45 kilograms (99 pounds) from 6kgs and widen their range to all of the more than 80 Tanzanian islands on Africa’s biggest lake.

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It’s a project that may be especially welcome in Tanzania, which is twice the size of California and home to about 57m people. The United Nations Children’s Fund says the proportion of government spending going toward the health sector has declined over the past five years and remains short of the amount needed to provide basic services. Malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis are the main health threats.

‘Timely delivery’

“I know of places in Tanzania so remote that the state-run Medical Stores Department could take several days to deliver medical supplies,” said Syriacus Buguzi, a doctor and public-health advocate in the commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, which is about 800kms (500 miles) from the lake. “Ultimately, people’s lives are transformed through timely delivery of medicines and medical supplies,” he said, welcoming the potential impact of drones.

So far, the project has had €150,000 ($169,590) in funding from Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH, or GIZ, on behalf of Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Mulamula said. Tanzania’s MSD contracted GIZ and Costech to run the project.

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In the test phase, when local medics on Ukerewe island received patients needing assistance – such as a snake-bite victim or an expectant mother needing blood – they text messaged the referral hospital in Mwanza region. The treatment could then arrive by drone in 40 minutes, Mulamula said.

There’s still a long way to go. Lake Victoria is divided between Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, with the portion in Tanzanian territory roughly the area of Rwanda alone. Mulamula said his organization is working with the World Bank and other Tanzanian institutions to prepare the next phase.

“We will sit down with MSD to see how we can roll out this project across all the islands,” he said.