On 12 March 2016, children in Malawi look on amazed in the community demonstration of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones) flying in Lilongwe. The Ministry of Health and UNICEF launched the first 10km auto programmed flight in a trial to speed up the testing and diagnosis of HIV in infants.
Malawi has a national HIV prevalence rate of 10% – still one of the highest in the world. An estimated 1 million Malawians were living with HIV in 2013 and 48,000 died from HIV-related illnesses in the same year. Whilst progress has been made, and today 90% of pregnant women know their HIV status, there is still a drop off with testing and treating babies and children. In 2014, around 10,000 children in Malawi died from HIV-related diseases and less than half of all children were on treatment. Samples are currently transported by road, either by motorbike or local authority ambulances. Various factors including the high cost of diesel fuel, poor state of roads and limited distribution schedules have resulted in extreme delays in lab sample transport, constituting a significant impediment for the scaling up of paediatric ARTs effectiveness.
In March 2016, the Government of Malawi and UNICEF have started testing the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones) to explore cost effective ways of reducing waiting times for HIV testing of infants. The test, which is using simulated samples, will have the potential to cut waiting times dramatically, and if successful will be integrated into the health system alongside others mechanisms such as road transport and SMS. The first successful test flight completed the 10km route unhindered travelling from a community health centre to the Kamuzu Central Hospital laboratory. Local residents gathered in amazement as the vehicle took off and flew away in the direction of the hospital. The test flights which are assessing viability including cost and safety, will continue until Friday 18th March. The UAV flights are suppo