The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has a powerful new weapon in the fight against the spread of viruses: drones. NPR reported that a UNICEF-charted drone delivered doses of both hepatitis and tuberculosis vaccines to a one-month-old female patient named Joy who lives in the island country of Vanuatu, located in the Pacific approximately halfway between New Caledonia and Fiji. According to UNICEF, the extreme remoteness of Vanuatu makes it very difficult to deliver medical supplies to the population.
“This drone flight changes everything,” UNICEF recently wrote in an email. “1 in 5 children here in Vanuatu misses out on essential childhood vaccines because of the challenges we face to deliver them. It’s extremely hard to carry ice boxes to keep the vaccines cool while walking across rivers, mountains, through the rain, across rocky ledges. Field teams can’t even rely on boats—they often get canceled due to bad weather.”
“Now, with these drones, we can reach many more children in the most remote areas of the island—and beyond.”
Drone use in Vanuatu, a country composed of about 80 small islands, is being spearheaded by the Vanuatan Ministry of Health and Civil Aviation Authority, according to NPR. The Australian government, UNICEF, and other nonprofit groups are also part of the effort. Vanuatu has a somewhat close relationship with Australia, and recently the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison traveled there to meet with the country’s leadership regarding continued cooperation, according to a report from The Conversation.
“This is a significant step because it shows that a government is showing commitment to address the vaccine delivery issue and is interested in exploring new possibilities,” wrote Johns Hopkins’ professor Dr. Bruce Lee in an email to NPR.
— UNICEF (@UNICEF) December 23, 2018
The drone used in the delivery was operated by Swoop Aero, an Australian company pioneering the concept of medical supply transportation by unmanned aircraft. According to the firm’s website, Swoop Aero’s drone delivery model is called “Airborne Mobility,” through which the company operates “an on-demand, high-speed, autonomous airborne logistics network,” to bring medical supplies to patients in hard-to-reach locations.
While this may be the first time UNICEF used a drone to bring vaccines to a remote location, it hopefully won’t be the last. Currently, regional violence and an unstable political situation is hampering efforts of nongovernmental organizations responding to the current Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, due primarily to the extreme danger health care teams are encountering in the regions hit hardest. Perhaps using drones to deploy the Ebola vaccine to those in affected areas may stop the spread of the virus before it infects more people.
You can watch footage of the drone in action here.