Drones could speed up HIV tests in remote areas

Malawi has started a test program that uses drones to improve access to HIV testing for babies. Various factors, including poor roads and high transport costs, in remote areas often result in delays in testing that can prevent access to vital antiretroviral treatment.

STORY: Malawi has started testing the use of drones to speed up the time it takes to test infants living in rural areas for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Ten percent of Malawians suffer from HIV - one of the highest rates of the deadly condition in the world.

The United Nations’ (UN) children’s agency UNICEF has partnered with US-based drone company Matternet to develop a program in which Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) pick up sample batches from local health centers and deliver them to specialist laboratories. There are only eight such laboratories across the country, which has a population of more than 16 million.

Currently motorbike couriers are used to transport samples across often poorly-maintained roads. UNICEF and Matternet believe deliveries could be made more efficiently by air.

Their testing program is currently using simulated samples.

The first successful test flight recently completed a 10 kilometer route from a community health center to the Kamuzu Central Hospital laboratory in the capital Lilongwe.

UAVs have been used in the past for surveillance and assessments of disasters, but this is believed to be the first use of the technology on the continent for the improvement of HIV services.

“There are many delays in the continuum of getting HIV positive children on treatment, they need to come in early for testing, ideally before two months, between six and eight weeks, their tests, the dry bloodspots need to get from the health facilities to one of the eight laboratories nationwide,” said Judith Sherman, head of Unicef Malawi’s HIV and Aids program.

The plan is eventually for UAVs to be operated by health workers by virtue of a password and a GPS signal on their mobile phone. A simple swipe of a button will make the vehicle airborne. Each drone costs $7,000 USD but minimal battery charging costs make them cheaper over time than diesel fueled motorbikes.

While progress has been made, and today 90 percent of pregnant women know their HIV status, there are still lengthy delays in testing and treating babies and children.

Agnes, a mother who tested positive for HIV, is on her way to the community health center to get her baby tested.

“It’s a very painful experience for me because as it is, I don’t know whether my child got the disease from me or if he’s okay, so the waiting is painful,” Agnes told Reuters.

Currently it can take almost two months to get samples from a healthcare facility to a laboratory and for the results to be returned.

“The results, once they are available, they need to be brought back to the health facility and communicated to the mother and while many efforts have been made to shorten each leg of that continuum, we need to do better. Mothers are still waiting up to two months for those test results and that can be a very long period in an HIV positive infant’s life,” said Sherman.

In 2014, about 40,000 children in Malawi were born to HIV positive mothers, according to UNICEF. Every year around 10,000 children die of the virus, a number the agency says could be tackled by early diagnosis and quality medical care.

An estimated one million Malawians were living with HIV in 2013 and 48,000 died from HIV-related illnesses in the same year.

A young child may be infected by their HIV-positive mother during pregnancy or breast-feeding, but drug treatment can reduce the risk of transmission.

UNICEF estimates that if the flights are cost-effective the drones would be able to carry up to 250 tests at once.