The impact of drones in the fight against post-partum haemorrhage mortality

Yesterday, we took a peek back with drone logistics company Zipline, to check the year they have had since the launched medical drone logistics in partnership with the Bayelsa regional government in southern Nigeria.

And it is a lot; thousands of people reached at scores and scores of health centres reached with medical supplies at a miniscule of the time it used to take before the medical drone age; you just have to appreciate that drone technology has been a real godsend, especially to parts of the continent that were previously literally unreachable, except on foot, or by barges and four-wheel drive vehicles that would still take days to get to their destinations.

But Zipline – as has a few other humanitarian medical drone logistics companies and services providers across Africa – has brought a solution that has saved a lot of lives, just through timely delivery of medical supplies.

Take post-partum haemorrhage among women for example, whose grim statistics led to the government in Botswana and a drone-based start-up in Benin taking the plunge to try the medical delivery drones: according to the 2023 Health Impact Report that Zipline has just released, more than 70,000 women die from postpartum haemorrhage (PPH) every year, making it the leading cause of maternal death in the world.

That worrying number comes from the more than 14million women who suffer from PPH annually. And it gets worse; the women who survive are at a greater-than-average risk of health complications such as post-traumatic stress disorder and cardiovascular disease.

The report added that in sub-Saharan Africa, about 26 percent of maternal deaths by haemorrhaged deaths are due to lack of access to blood. That was the case in Rwanda before the Zips arrived on the scene; PPH was responsible for nearly a quarter of documented maternal deaths.

“Today, Zipline delivers blood, platelets, fresh-frozen plasma, and a plasma component called cryoprecipitate to clinical staff caring for labouring mothers at all hours of the day, within an hour of the order being placed,” the report says. 

“In 2023, Zipline delivered a total of 28,754 units of blood — over four thousand gallons — to patients in Rwanda in critical condition, the majority of whom were women in critical moments of delivery. Zipline delivered blood, on average, within 42 minutes of the order being placed.”

Obviously, this does sound like Zipline are kind of blowing their own horn here; but if you have travelled the distances in rural Africa that people, especially those living in rural areas, have travelled to get medical care, then you will appreciate when governments and non-government organisations step in to launch medical drone operations to ease the desperation.

“In Benin, there are many regions that are quite isolated, particularly in certain periods of the year,” said Djawad Ramanou, the UNFPA Benin representative who led the drone project that ushered in new hope for expecting mothers in the country.

“In Firou, for example, there’s a small bridge that connects Firou to other communities, and during the rainy season the water levels rise and completely cut off the area from other villages.

“But with a drone we can reach the maternity ward there. Until now, if it rained, the hospital was cut off and patients weren’t able to get the care they needed.”

In Zipline’s case, before the company came on board to work with the government in Rwanda, healthcare professionals struggled to get the blood they needed to save mothers’ lives. Sometimes they used refrigerated trucks, which had to travel for hours across hilly terrain from the Regional Centre for Blood Transfusion to hospitals and clinics. 

The clinics where the blood was needed had limited cold storage, so staff had to carefully manage stockpiles of whole blood, which has a refrigerated shelf life of about 35 days. 

With frozen blood products were effectively unavailable, the situation forced doctors to use whole blood, even in cases when fresh-frozen plasma, which can help with clotting, would have been more clinically appropriate. 

“By simply improving blood delivery logistics, Zipline and the Ministry of Health in Rwanda significantly reduced the risk of maternal mortality in the country,” Zipline’s report adds.

“A 2023 study published by researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in collaboration with the MOH determined that Zipline blood delivery reduced nationwide in-hospital mortality from PPH by 51 percent.”

Besides blood, zipline also delivers other medical supplies, which include oxytocin, tranexamic acid, misoprostol, magnesium sulphate IV fluids, and a wide range of antibiotics; all of which are used to treat childbearing women.

We are sure the company has improved healthcare delivery in the countries and regions in which it operates, as demonstrated by their time in Bayelsa in the past year.

The advent of medical drone logistics in Rwanda has helped the government save people’s lives, improve the quality of life of their families, and saved money by decentralising the national blood supply through instant logistics.

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