The initiative that is supported by Melinda and gates foundation was launched at Bufumira he health center in Kalangala district, with bottles of medication are carefully loaded into the body of the drone, amidst residents that gathered to witness the launch.
The drone delivery will now see 20 scheduled flights a month, carrying mostly HIV medicines out to 78 community groups and health facilities across the widely scattered Ssese islands, which have the highest HIV prevalence in Uganda.
Kalangala district has an HIV prevalence rate of 18%, far higher than the national rate of 5.6%. The government’s HIV strategy estimates prevalence of the virus to be up to 40% in some fishing communities.
The delivery of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) and healthcare is difficult, weather-dependent and risky for healthcare workers, as travel into the region is possible only by boat. The drones, it’s hoped, which cost about £4,000 each, carry loads of up to 1kg and fly for 150km, will “close that last mile”, said Andrew Kambugu, executive director at Makerere University Infectious Disease Institute (IDI).
“Closing the last mile of delivery and ensuring that people living in remote communities have equitable access to modern treatments for HIV is one of the most significant challenges in global health and in Uganda,” he said.
“Medical drones can help solve this challenge by safely and reliably delivering life saving medications, thereby empowering frontline healthcare workers to allocate more time and resources to performing other essential services, resulting in healthier and more resilient communities.”
Uganda’s ministry of health, the Academy for Health Innovation, Uganda, and IDI collaborated on the medical drones pilot at Bufumira, which carried ARVs to more than 1,000 people living with HIV.
The “overcoming geographical barriers with technology” initiative will ease challenges, said Henry Mwebesa, Uganda’s director general of health services.
“Using medical drones is a huge step for us as a health sector in improving service delivery especially in hard to reach areas,” he said.
“It’s very useful. Once it’s successful we can adopt it for other facilities and replicate it in other places.”
“This is exciting. It will ease the transportation of vaccines to our health facilities in those landing sites,” said Jude Matovu, in charge of the Bufumira health centre. “So we expect our outpatient department coverage to increase.”
The Uganda Medical Association has welcomed the drones, but expressed concern over drug shortages due to inadequate funding. Its secretary general Mukuzi Muhereza said: “We are welcoming it. It’s very important and it could be a gamechanger. It would be nice to see whether it really works with our bad network and connectivity.