Expanding medical drone operations in the DRC

It was just a test drive when they started three years ago, but apparently, medical drones have been so good for the healthcare efforts of the Democratic Republic of Congo government that they cannot get enough of them.

Of course, the country’s health ministry is not working alone in this – since 2019, the DRC government, supported by VillageReach and GAVI has been working on its Extended Immunisation Programme (EPI), which is aimed at overcoming the barriers of poor roads and other means of transport to improve immunisation in communities that were previously inaccessible.

The idea to introduce drone technology was first brought by VillageReach in 2019, which proposed a pilot project called Drones for Health (D4H). Phase 1 of the program began in Equateur province, with Australian medical drone maker Swoop Aero successfully demonstrating that a complementary drone transport system can lead to faster and more consistent product deliveries.

Which the first phase a resounding success, the stakeholders chose to take the pilot further into the second phase, which focussed on consolidating and making routine the gains of Phase 1. Still ongoing, Phase 2’s overall goal is to increase access to essential health products, primarily immunization products, in some of the most remote or inaccessible communities throughout Equateur province through routine drone-based deliveries.

“Since late December 2020, the drone network has served 29 health facilities, via 14 drone landing sites, with scale up continuing through 2021,” VillageReach says. “Since then, more than 1,000 flights have been completed, transporting over 50,000 vaccine doses, lab samples, medical reports, PPE, and essential medicines.”

And that is one province taken care of; the health ministry has more health centres in other provinces to immunise and bring medicines to – which is why VillageReach is calling for more drone companies to join them in Phase 3, which will see two more provinces being brought into the sphere of influence.

“Building off the success of Phase 1 and Phase 2, the MoH and EPI are interested in expanding the D4H program to two additional provinces in 2022, henceforth referred to as Phase 3,” says VillageReach. “The goal of Phase 3 is to expand D4H to reach an additional 75 hard-to-reach health facilities across Kinshasa and Kongo Central Provinces to increase access to immunisation and other health products and to improve the laboratory sample transportation systems through routine drone deliveries.

“VillageReach is currently supporting the MoH, EPI and UNICEF to conduct a feasibility study to identify the 75 drone delivery sites, design the drone delivery networks and select a drone provider for the Phase 3 implementation.”

The successful provider will first help the other stakeholders and the government in laying the groundwork for the implementation of the project – which is set for next year; funds permitting. Such preparatory work includes identifying drone take-off and landing sites, designing the drone delivery network and flight routes, submitting a flight and importation approval application, and preparing for aircraft and equipment shipping and importation.

After that, Phase 3 will start in earnest

“The MoH and EPI have identified more than 150 hard-to-reach health facilities across both provinces, of which 75 will be selected during Period 1. Bi-directional drone deliveries will be conducted on a routine and on-demand/emergency basis (monthly, weekly or a combination of both) between drone hubs and these 75 hard-to-reach health facilities.

The goal of Phase 3 is to deliver and collect medical commodities such as vaccines and medicines and to collect lab samples, reports and other products to and from the 75 public health facilities in Kinshasa and Kongo Central provinces. The vendor will work closely with VillageReach, MoH, EPI and all relevant authorities to obtain the necessary approvals prior to flying and to ensure that aircraft safety regulations and requirements are met or exceeded at all times.”

Application should reach VillageReach by September 19 this year, and those looking for more information can find it here.

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