More drone-based efforts to fight malaria in Zanzibar

Health authorities at the Tanzanian archipelago of Zanzibar are doubling on their drone-based efforts to fight malaria in the region, following hot on the heels of similar efforts last year.

This time, researchers at Aberystwyth University in Wales, United Kingdom are joining the fight, on a project that will use drone and smartphone technology to help find pools of water where mosquitoes breed in.

Funded by the Innovative Vector Control Consortium, the project will see Aber University working with the Zanzibar Malaria Elimination Programme (ZAMEP) to fly drones over known malaria hot spots, presumably on mapping operations which will then be used as targets for elimination efforts.

According to a statement from the university, once the water breeding sites are identified using drone images, the authorities can use the data within a bespoke smartphone app to precisely locate and treat mosquito habitats, and to track their progress and coverage.

“There has already been great success in reducing the number of malaria cases in sub-Saharan Africa thanks to interventions like bed nets and indoor residual sprays,” said Dr Andy Hardy from the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University. “It’s been a real success story, leading to a notable decrease in the disease’s prevalence.”

“Some areas of Zanzibar have seen prevalence levels drop from 40 percent of the population having malaria to less than one percent. Now public health managers are looking to complement the existing use of bed nets and indoor residual sprays with outdoor based solutions. In effect, we’re taking the battle to mosquitoes.”

The team will incorporate drone imagery and smartphone technology into a spatial intelligence system to help guide efforts to eradicate the disease.

The smartphone technology was developed by Zzapp Malaria, and even won a IBM Watson AI XPRIZE.

“Drones are a crucial part of the armoury. One of the main challenges to disease managers is finding small water bodies that mosquitoes use to breed. This is where drones come in – for the first time, drone imagery can be routinely captured by the malaria elimination programme in Zanzibar, to create precise and accurate maps of potential breeding sites.

“We are excited to see how our technology-led approach can improve malaria elimination operations in Zanzibar. In 20 minutes, a single drone is able to survey a 30-hectare rice paddy. This imagery can be processed and analysed on the same afternoon to locate and map potential breeding sites. This has proved to be highly accurate and efficient.”

Malaria is indeed a thorn in the flesh of the Zanzibari archipelago, as this is not the first time drone-based efforts have been explored to fight the disease.

Last year, anti-Malaria Drones; an initiative which brought together efforts from drone maker DJI; Australian insecticide company Aquatain; the Dutch Malaria Foundation and drone services start-up, Tanzania Flying Labs; used DJI’s agricultural drones to target mosquito breeding sites and spray them with Aquatain AMF, a silicone-based liquid whose purpose was to suffocate the mosquito larvae.

ZAMEP – which is responsible for the development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of malaria control interventions and coordination of stakeholders of malaria elimination interventions at all levels of the health care delivery system – was also part of this project.

Aside from ZAMEP and Aber, the current programme also incorporates the efforts of Tanzania Flying Labs; Mosquito Consulting; Zzapp Malaria; the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“As we strive towards the ultimate goal of malaria elimination we look to new techniques and technologies to inform intervention strategies,” said Dr Silas Majambere, the Director of Scientific Operations at the Pan African Mosquito Control Association. “For the first time, Dr Hardy’s mapping work is helping to provide critical information to enable a broad scale assessment of where permanent and semi-permanent water bodies exist – key targets for malarial mosquito control. I am currently working closely with national malaria control programmes in many countries in Africa, and I have proposed that Dr Hardy’s wetland mapping approaches are used to plan and guide national-level activities.

“In addition, Dr Hardy’s work has showcased the benefits of using drones for providing vital information for malaria control field teams – it has a very real potential for being applied in other national malaria control programmes. As such, I have proposed the use of Dr Hardy’s approach in other national malaria campaigns in Africa, including Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Ghana.”

David Malone, Senior Programme Officer, at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; “This collaboration between Aberystwyth University and the Zanzibar Malaria Elimination Programme, shows that drone and smartphone technology can provide vital data for controlling malarial mosquitoes in a relatively low-cost manner.

“Moreover, this work demonstrates that national malaria control programmes, like that in Zanzibar, can take ownership of this kind of technology, and therefore represents an important investment in the battle to eliminate malaria.”


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