The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed health systems around the world. In the shadows are other diseases that can cause further emergencies, such as yellow fever. Countering these threats requires creative solutions to stop the next health crisis. This is exactly what the provincial health authorities of Equateur Province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are doing, in partnership with the Ministry of Health and the Extended Vaccination Program (EPI), using an ongoing drone delivery network that will be set up in 2020 to be a mass vaccination campaign against yellow fever support that targets over 90% of the population, one village at a time.
DRONELIFE is honored to present this guest contribution from Olivier Defawe, Director Health Systems at VillageReach and founder of the UAV for Payload Delivery Working Group (UPDWG), who specializes in the advancement and application of drones for public health and supply chain improvement concentrated. DRONELIFE neither accepts nor makes payments from guest posts.
Equateur Province, in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is home to a two-way delivery network using Swoop Aero drone technology to serve remote and hard-to-reach healthcare facilities and communities. The provincial health ministry, with technical assistance from VillageReach and financial assistance from gathering donors including GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has set up operations to meet medical needs in the face of difficult terrain in the area.
The provincial health authorities distributed both via a drone delivery network routinely and on call Vaccines and other vaccination products monthly for children and women in 35 hard-to-reach health areas, over 20 drone landing sites. Since the drones can land almost anywhere, the drones are returning with a wide range of products, including yellow fever and COVID-19 laboratory samples.
Other supplies contain medical reports and sometimes On-demand deliveries of personal protective equipment (PPE) to support the COVID-19 response as well as vaccines, drugs and contraceptives. The results are now available and the delivery network is delivering successful results. In the past nine months, more than 15,000 children and 5,500 pregnant women living in the most inaccessible places have received vaccinations for the introduction of drones.
No wonder that the state government is once again relying on drone technology for this success in order to achieve its goal of reaching more than three million people between the ages of nine months and 60 years in the equator as part of the 10-day yellow fever prevention campaign.
Important reports help to keep track of the vaccination campaign
Dr. Nicole Lubanda, the EPI’s senior yellow fever and measles representative, traveled to the Bikoro Health District to serve as the national custodian for the yellow fever mass vaccination campaign.
She learned of the assistance the drones had given the district with routine vaccine deliveries. Upon reaching the site, one of the drones from a trip to Maanga arrived at the district’s landing site, one of three health catchment areas that benefit from drone shipments of yellow fever vaccines. It is a village that can only be reached via a lake and is 100 km from the Bikoro Health Department.
She was amazed to open the storage compartment of the drone that had just arrived and said: “[…] The drone helps us to send vaccines and other products as well as daily reports so that we can keep track of things [progress of the campaign]. [Within] We sent 5 to 10 frozen batteries or vaccines in 10 to 20 minutes and can thus supply areas that are difficult to access in record time. “
Journeys reduced from two days to 25 minutes
Ipombo is a village in the Lolanga Bobanga Health District, 37 kilometers from Mbandaka, the capital of Equateur. What looks like a short distance, however, requires a two and a half hour canoe trip down the Congo, followed by an additional half an hour of road travel. In previous campaigns, David Moponda, the head nurse at the Ipombo health facility, had to load his supplies of syringes, vaccines, diluents, and vaccination cards onto a canoe to make the trip. But he wasn’t worried about this campaign because drones had carried it.
“This year was different thanks to support from Drones for Health. In Ipombo, more than 9,900 doses of yellow fever vaccine and diluents would be required to vaccinate the target population between the ages of nine months and 60 years, ”said David Moponda. “Within four days and only 25 minutes per trip, the drones had already delivered 4,200 doses of the vaccine.”
Operations had to be stopped because the health facility’s refrigerator was already at full capacity. However, as soon as space is free, the flights will take off again.
Transformation of the yellow fever vaccination campaign
From a technical point of view, the drones changed the vaccine campaign in three ways:
1) The drones made it possible to bridge the lack of a functioning cold chain in which the campaign was carried out. Drones enabled the timely delivery of yellow fever vaccines to the campaign team as the campaign continued in the region, eliminating the need for cold chain equipment.
2) The drones enabled a quick response to unexpected needs of the campaign team. This enabled a need-based subsequent delivery of products such as vaccination cards.
3) Epidemiological surveillance activities were stepped up and drones made it possible to transport samples quickly from health facilities to provincial laboratories for processing.
Overall, the drones increased the range, effectiveness and responsiveness of the yellow fever vaccination campaign.
At the end of the campaign, it becomes clear that creative solutions are emerging from harnessing what already exists in new ways – and harnessing a drone network used for the routine delivery of a mass vaccination campaign has just brought the value of drone technology to the healthcare system in Equateur, Democratic Republic Congo.
Read more from Olivier Defawe in a previous DRONELIFE op-ed: COVID-19 is here: Now where are the drones?
Olivier Defawe, Director Health Systems at VillageReach, leads the development and implementation of a broad portfolio of health innovations to improve last mile health care. Defawe has been the head of the Drones for Health program since its inception in 2015. He oversees the implementation of drone delivery programs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Malawi, Mozambique, the Central African Republic and the Dominican Republic. He is also the founder of the UAV for Payload Delivery Working Group (UPDWG), which focuses on advancing and deploying drones for public health and improving the supply chain by coordinating evidence generation and experience between partners and stakeholders. Defawe has a PhD in Biomedical Sciences.