Villagers rejoice as they receive the first vaccines ever delivered via drone in the Congo

The area's topography makes transporting medicines a treacherous task.

Photo by Henry Sempangi Senyule

When we discuss barriers to healthcare in the developed world, affordability is commonly the biggest concern. But for some in the developing world, physical distance and topography can be the difference between life and death.

Widjifake, a hard-to-reach village in northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with a population of 6,500, struggles with having consistent access to healthcare supplies due to the Congo River and its winding tributaries.

It can take up to three hours for vehicles carrying supplies to reach the village.

Photo by Henry Sempangi Senyule

Widjifake's struggle is just one of many in a country fraught with healthcare challenges.

"The coverage rate for routine immunization in DRC is extremely low and the Ministry of Health has declared a health emergency to work to improve it," said Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, according to SUAS News.

"Coincidently, DRC is experiencing an unprecedented series of deadly disease outbreaks, which are all symptoms of poor coverage, weak health systems, lack of infrastructure, and broader health issues in the country," Berkley continued.

The DRC has worked to solve this health care crisis by launching a campaign called New Generation Supply Chain program or Nouvelle Génération des Chaînes d'Approvisionnement (NGCA). One of the major goals of the NGCA is to reach remote populations in villages such as Widjifake with vaccines and medical supplies.

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One solution they were eager to test is transporting supplies via drones.

On August 8, the Ministry of Health, VillageReach, Swoop Aero, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, came together to make the first successful delivery of medical supplies to Widjifake via drone.

The drone reaches WidjifakePhoto by Henry Sempangi Senyule

The drone's vertical take-off and landing capability allowed it to easily traverse the DRC's dense jungle and raging rivers to drop down in a clearing at a health center in the village.

The first drone, launched in Mbandaka, took just 20 minutes to travel 40 kilometers (25 miles) to Widjifake and delivered the vaccines at their proper temperature to ensure maximum efficacy.

On the drone's return trip, it brought back lab samples, data collection forms, and requests for medicines needed to Mbandaka.

Most of the villagers in Widjifake has never seen a drone before and marveled as it took to the sky.

On the first day, the drones managed four successful round-trip test flights to deliver a three-month supply of vaccines which were administered to children that day.

Over the next five days, the drones would complete another 50 round-trip flights.

Healthcare workers refrigerate the new delivery. Photo by Henry Sempangi Senyule

The DRC's Ministry of Health were impressed by the delivery and see drones as a way forward in the battle to increase healthcare access.

"The Ministry of Health welcomes this innovation that facilitates the transport of vaccines and other essential health products through drones to overcome accessibility challenges in Equateur's hard-to-reach communities. This will bring essential health care closer to the population in order to improve universal health coverage," said Yuma Ramazani, Secretary-General for Health, DRC.

Photo by Henry Sempangi Senyule

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The next big challenge for relief workers is making sure medical supplies are available to be transported.

"Rivers, forests, and difficult roads can be the first barriers to accessing basic health services. If people overcome these geographical barriers, they may find another: a health center without vaccines or essential medicines," Emily Bancroft, CEO of VillageReach, said.

"We believe drones have significant potential to create the responsive, people-centered supply chains that will ensure access to health care for under-reached populations," she continued.

While drones aren't a cure-all the multitude of healthcare problems in the DRC, they've proven to be an effective, safe, and affordable way to bring isolated populations the medical supplies they desperately need.

Olivier Defawe from Drones for Health says the next step involves securing financing for drone programs so they can be expanded.

"As with any viable solution, the need exists to secure continued funding for a long-term investment that would enable its full integration into the health system," Defawe told VillageReach. "Once we secure ongoing capital, all systems are go."

Julian Meehan

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