Uganda breaks down geographic barriers with technology: on the Ssese Islands on Lake Victoria, HIV drugs arrive thanks to drones and the experiment is about to be exported to other continents
From 29 July to 2 August, the 24th International AIDS Conference was held in Montreal.
For the first time, two teams of scientists presented important research on the impact of drone technology on the distribution of HIV drugs in hard-to-reach areas.
The idea – funded by Johnson & Johnson – was tested in the Kalangala district of Uganda
It involved the Bufumira Health Centre, the Ministry of Health in Kampala, the Academy for Health Innovation and a research institute affiliated with Makerere University, the Infectious Diseases Institute.
The eradication of HIV is an almost unattainable goal for Uganda without the intelligent use of technology, because the areas most affected are geographically and logistically isolated.
If the prevalence rate of the disease in the country is in fact 5.6%, in the Kalangala district it is around 18%, with peaks – in the most remote areas – of 40.
The worst situation concerns the inhabitants of the Ssese islands, an archipelago of 84 atolls in Lake Victoria, the large freshwater basin stretching between Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya.
The islands, inhabited by almost 70,000 people and located just under 100 kilometres from the capital Kampala, can still only be reached by boat, with the risk that the weather conditions will seriously hamper the delivery of medicines.
Uganda, life-saving medicines arrive by flying
The use of drones, already pioneered in Ghana and Rwanda to deliver blood and medicines to more than 22 million people, is intended to provide a solution to the difficulty of supplying Uganda’s health system on the islands, which, added to the nomadic lifestyle of fishermen, is one of the main reasons limiting access to adequate treatment for half of the sick residents.
Twenty flights are scheduled each month to ensure vital health needs are met for over a thousand people living with HIV in the 78 community groups living in the archipelago.
Local experts supervise the take-off and landing of each aircraft, which, at the end of a journey of some ten kilometres over the world’s largest tropical lake, ensures a three-month distribution of anti-retroviral drugs to around 15 people.
The nerve centre of the project is the island of Bufumira, where the drugs arrive by sea before being loaded onto airborne devices designed to hold up to one kilogramme in weight and travel up to 150 km.
The initiative is not without its critics, because it does not make a dent in the structural budget problem of the Ugandan health system, which is often condemned by the public because of the poor availability of medicines even in public health facilities that are easily accessible by road.
There is no doubt, however, about the considerable advantages of distributing medicines via drones compared to distribution by boat.
Firstly, delivery times have been reduced from 35 to 9 minutes and the inconveniences concerning the risk of rain have been completely eliminated.
In addition to the adherence to the timetable and greater adherence to treatment by patients who can take their medication at the appropriate time thanks to their availability, time and money savings were also emphasised among the results regarding the success of the trial.
In the past, in fact, health workers visiting the islands spent more than half of their time requesting new supplies of drugs, while now part of the project involves specific training for doctors in local facilities to distribute the drugs transported by drones to the population.
Not only Uganda: the ‘African method’ against HIV
The Academy for Health Innovation has assured that the project will soon be extended to West Nile, a northern Ugandan region, and Andrew Kambugu, executive director of the Infectious Disease Institute in Kampala, said that ensuring that all people have equitable access to modern HIV treatments is ‘one of the most significant challenges for Ugandan and global health’.
It seems, in fact, that Africa is finally using modern technology to overcome geographical and logistical difficulties and tackle this scourge that has plagued the continent for more than half a century.
Another example is in Conakry, where drones are being used in place of motorbikes to bypass the traffic in the metropolis and quickly deliver blood samples for the newborn HIV diagnostic test.
Although the low percentage of Guinean GDP allocated to medical care discourages widespread implementation of the initiative, according to Maxime Inghels, a researcher at the Lincoln International Institute for Rural Health, the use of drones is set to completely change the AIDS scenario in Guinea Conakry: overcoming delivery delays due to congested roads will enable early diagnosis of the disease, infant mortality will be significantly reduced, and up to 24 years will be added to the average life expectancy.
The use of drones for medical supplies could be one of the solutions to the delivery difficulties of African public health systems, but also ‘an African method’ taken up on other continents to implement a differentiated approach to service delivery.
The United States, for example, could draw inspiration from Africa to bridge medical delivery gaps in indigenous Native American communities or Alaska, where according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV diagnoses are on the rise.