Health, Science-Technology, Africa

Medical drones help save lives in Tanzania

Delivering medical treatments and transporting lab tests for faster processing, drones are saving lives in remote islands

Kizito Makoye   | 19.04.2021
Medical drones help save lives in Tanzania


Medical drones whizzing in the sky like mosquitos bring hope to around 400,000 residents of Tanzania’s remote Ukerewe island district of Lake Victoria.

Skirting traditional transporting system that takes hours includes a car and ferry trip, the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) not only bring medicine and help to attend emergencies but also collect blood samples to take them to the nearest medical center 240 kilometers (149 miles) away in Mwanza.

It is a sight to see a done hovering 100 feet above in the air making vertical maneuvers and drops a pack of medical supplies tied to a parachute made of wax paper on the roof of a hospital in Ukerewe. The packet also includes blood units to be used for transfusion in emergency surgeries and also to treat patients suffering from malaria and anemia.

These supplies are delivered on daily basis, to save lives on the island as part of the initiative launched by Tanzania’s Health Ministry through its Medical Store Department (MSD) and other international partners.

Until recently, the delivery of essential medical supplies for saving lives, in remote islands in Lake Victoria was an uphill struggle due to transportation and other logistical challenges.

The medicine-delivering drones, flying at 100 km (62 miles) an hour have helped save the lives of many people in Ukara, which is among 27 small islands surrounding Lake Victoria.

Nestled on the edge of the island, Regina Mujuni, 35, at the Bwisya Medical Centre recalls that last December she needed urgent blood transfusing during childbirth.

“I don’t what to remember the suffering I went through. It was the most traumatic experience of my life,” said the mother of five. Two years ago in the same medical facility, a young woman had died during childbirth for want of blood supply.

Mujuni said she had arrived at the hospital in the morning, experiencing labor. The midwife in a message to Bugando referral hospital in Mwanza asked for three units of blood. With the help of a drone, blood supply and other medicine reached well in time to save both mother and child.

Tanzania has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates at 556 deaths per every 100,000 deliveries, according to government data.

Although the country has improved health facilities to some extent, experts are still miles away to reach a large section of the population.

To improve the delivery of medical supplies to remote locations, Health Ministry and MSD teamed up with Zipline International and DHL -- an international package delivery service – in 2018 to put in service drones to deliver essential medical supplies to remote areas.

The initiative is currently benefiting more than 10 regions countrywide.

Laurean Bwanakunu director-general of MSD said the drones have the potential to make 2000 deliveries a day to hundreds of health facilities transporting vaccines, blood, diagnostic samples, malaria, and HIV/AIDS drugs.

“They fly so fast, I cannot imagine how the badly needed blood is delivered. My son would have almost died, who needed an urgent transfusion of blood group O which was not available, but thanks to drone, the supply reached and he was saved,” said Anna Kisoka a resident of Ukerewe.

While Nansio— the main town on the island, is dotted with many hospitals, the medical facilities are scarce at other tiny islands.

Over a long time, public health experts had been grappling to seek improvement of essential medical supplies to remote areas, which get shut often due to floods.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Cornel Maghembe, Ukerewe district commissioner said the use of drones has significantly eased shipment of important medical supplies and is helping to fight chronic diseases notably malaria and typhoid.

“We are very much satisfied by the service provided by these drones. We call upon other innovative companies to invest in such services,” he said.

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