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Drones to improve health service delivery

THE Zambian government has set itself  an ambitious target to provide  equitable access to cost-effective, quality health services as close to the  people as possible.
According to the Ministry of Health’s mission, health care must be accessed by all Zambians regardless of location and status in society.
However, for remotest parts of the country such as Nabwalya in Northern Province and Shangombo in Western Province among others, this is a far-fetched dream.
This is because most of these areas are difficult to access or are entirely inaccessible due to lack of transport infrastructure.
The challenge is even worse during the rainy season, when we have most of these areas cut off completely from the rest of the country.
While Government is working to improve and increase health infrastructure in rural areas through its massive 650 health posts construction project, delivery of drugs and other medical supplies still remains a major challenge.
For instance, the responsibility for distribution of drugs and related products rests with Medical Stores Limited and each year trucks travel over 1 million kilometres to deliver supplies to 110 depots around the country. And from here, the drugs are distributed locally by road, boat, and even by ox, depending on the situation.
This means drugs and medical supplies take long to reach their intended destinations. This has to a larger extent impacted negatively on Government’s ability to reduce the disease burden and avert death, especially in far-flung remote areas.
The prohibitive transport costs have also added to the challenges in accessing drugs, blood products and other medical supplies critical to preserving life in rural areas.
We are, however, elated that challenges of access to critical medical supplies will soon be a thing of the past as Government embarks on a project to use drones to deliver these supplies to far-flung areas.
Drones are remotely piloted aerial systems or, in simple terms, flying robots.
Early this year, the Minister of Health, Chitalu Chilufya, revealed that plans to engage drone technology in delivery of medical essentials were in the pipeline.
Yesterday, test flights of the drones were conducted and full-fledged operations are expected to start at the end of the year.
Zambia will not be the first country to adopt the drone technology in medical supplies; Tanzania, Ghana and Rwanda have already taken that route and success has been recorded so far.
For instance, in the case of Rwanda, where it previously took an average of four hours to make an emergency delivery to a hospital, those deliveries are now being carried out in 15 minutes with a drone. This was confirmed by Minister of Information and Communication Technology Jean Philbert Nsengimana.
There is no doubt that this technology will add value to the delivery of health care in Zambia.
We expect maternal mortality rates to reduce significantly in rural areas.  This is because most maternal deaths are due to postpartum bleeding caused by lack of access to simple blood transfusions.
With the drone technology in place, blood can be delivered to far-flung areas within minutes thereby saving lives in emergency cases.
The technology will also help enhance consistent supply of Anti-Retro Viral drugs to rural areas thereby also promoting ART compliance by HIV patients.
We are optimistic that the use of the drones, apart from reducing costs, will help save lives in the remotest parts of the country as drugs and other medical essentials will be delivered as and when required.
In implementing the programme, Zambia has engaged a Japanese company, Sony Corp. group, which will develop and operate the drones across the country.
The company’s top-of-the-line drone is 160 centimetres long by 220 centimetres wide, and weighs seven kilogrammes.
It can take off and land vertically without a runway, carry packages weighing up to 1.5 kilogrammes and fly at a maximum speed of 130 kph.
The operations in Zambia will involve drones being loaded with AIDS test kits and other medical supplies at large base hospitals.
The drones will be pre-programmed with data about their destination, and fly for more than 10 minutes to villages, kilometres away from the hospitals.
Trained local staff at the destinations are to receive the packages, and the drones will transport blood and other samples from patients back to the base hospitals.
It is therefore our hope that those charged with the responsibility of implementing this technology will do so within the shortest possible time to save many lives.