Delivery drones set for Uganda’s islands

The delivery drone wave is sweeping into Uganda.

This after the government authorised pilot tests for unmanned aerial last mile shipment of mostly HIV medicines to the 67,000 people in Kalangala district – a community of 84 islands scattered around Lake Victoria, the world’s largest tropical lake, which Uganda shares with Tanzania and Kenya.

And it is in Kalangala where the prevalence is off the charts; with a rate of eighteen percent, the margin by with people in the in the district contract the virus is way above the national average of 5.6 percent. The government even estimates prevalence of the virus to be up to 40% in some fishing communities in the area.

The delivery drone that flew into the area last week was the first of a new project which will see twenty scheduled flights a month, carrying mostly HIV medicines out to 78 community groups and health facilities across the widely scattered Ssese islands.

“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,” Andrew Kambugu, executive director at Makerere University’s Infectious Disease Institute (IDI).

“Medical drones can help solve this challenge by safely and reliably delivering lifesaving medications, thereby empowering frontline healthcare workers to allocate more time and resources to performing other essential services, resulting in healthier and more resilient communities.”

The delivery of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) and healthcare into the islands has been made difficult and risky for healthcare workers, as travel into the region is possible only by boat, and boat rides are dependent on weather.

Which was why Uganda’s ministry of health, the Academy for Health Innovation, Uganda, and IDI collaborated on testing out the medical drones, which have worked wonders in countries like Rwanda and Ghana. Starting out in the Bufumira area, the drones’ payload capacity of one kilogramme and a 150kilometre-flight range will see them fly ARVs to more than 1,000 people living with HIV.

Jude Matovu is excited to be working with drone technology. Picture: Makerere University Infectious Disease Institute

“Using medical drones is a huge step for us as a health sector in improving service delivery especially in hard-to-reach areas,” said Henry Mwebesa, Uganda’s director general of health services who, on the sidelines of the initiative’s launch the launch, added that drone technology will ease the challenge posed by geographical barriers. “It’s very useful. Once it’s successful we can adopt it for other facilities and replicate it in other places.”

The drones will be operated by locally trained experts who will monitor stuff like flights and landing.

“This is exciting,” said Jude Matovu, in charge of the Bufumira health centre. “It will ease the transportation of vaccines to our health facilities in those landing sites, so we expect our outpatient department coverage to increase.”

According to The Guardian, the Uganda Medical Association, although excited by the integration of drone technology into medical delivery, has warned that drug shortages due to inadequate funding are a more pressing challenge the government should be focussing on.

“We welcome the technology,” UMA secretary general Mukuzi Muhereza said. “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.

“But while the new distribution and delivery mode is welcome, the biggest problem is that public health facilities get stock-outs even when they can be reached by road. The biggest stock-outs are because of lack of funds, not transportation.

“Realistically I think we are not giving enough money to national medical stores to purchase drugs and supplies for every Ugandan that needs it.”


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