BOTSWANA— A collaborative initiative between the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Ministry of Health Botswana, Drones for Health, seeks to shorten the distance covered for medical supplies in Botswana.   

The Drone for Health pilot project aims to accelerate the reduction of preventable maternal death by delivering maternal health supplies and commodities in a timely manner, particularly to hard-to-reach communities and health facilities, to save lives.

The Drones for Health program also aims to reduce delivery times from hours to minutes for essential medical supplies and samples from healthcare hubs to reach remote clinics.

In this case, the logistical challenges that come with last-mile delivery of lifesaving medical products in Botswana because of its size and sparse population.

The project is under the facilitation of UNFPA, Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST) together with the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW) and the Ministry of Tertiary Education, Research, Science & Technology.

Avy Aera was selected as the technology partner for the drone system. 

Technology and digitally driven solutions have the potential to transform healthcare, particularly for women and girls in underserved communities.

Between 25 and 40 percent of all temperature-sensitive medical supplies sent from urban centres to rural health clinics are wasted because of unreliable cold-chain infrastructure.

Rural clinics also often experience stock-outs, leaving patients in need of specialized products and drugs unable to get them. 

These are life-threatening access problems that the Drones for Health project hopes to help resolve, largely by leapfrogging traditional modes of transportation.

Although it’s not just sampling the drones can transport, Drones for Health has been acclimated to also curb preventable maternal deaths in Botswana through the swift delivery of maternal health supplies, such as blood, equipment, and medicine.

 UNFPA Botswana country director Beatrice Mutali, “Women can experience massive blood loss due to haemorrhaging during childbirth. Blood and blood-based products are therefore critical.”

Botswana efforts to address high rural maternal mortality rates

According to the UNFPA, the country of Botswana has a maternal mortality ratio (MMR) that comes close to double the average for upper-middle income countries, at 166 maternal deaths/100,000 live births.

 In 2017, the Botswana government set a national MMR target to lower the ratio down to 71/100,000 by 2025 and 54/100,000 by 2030.

Moreover, the main causes are postpartum haemorrhage, complications after abortion, and hypertensive disorders during pregnancy.

Progress towards averting these deaths has recently stagnated, with the national maternal mortality rate actually increasing between 2015 and 2020.

Drones are one creative approach to making headway in reversing this trend.

“Technology and digitally driven solutions have the potential to transform health care, particularly for women and girls in underserved communities, who are often left behind due to [living] in hard-to-reach areas,” said Mutali.

“The need to invest in innovative options to bridge the long distances, reduce current transportation costs, overcome road infrastructure challenges, and improve timely availability of essential emergency obstetric care drugs, commodities and supplies is therefore urgent,” Dr. Edwin Gorataone Dikoloti, Botswana’s Minister of Health and Wellness.

A Drones for Health success story

In the most remote corners of Botswana, access to healthcare resources is limited.

For instance, is the remote village of Mababe, Botswana, getting results from a straightforward blood test is no simple matter. 

First, samples must be collected by an ambulance headed for Maun, where the nearest major hospital and lab services are.

The ambulance must cover 116 kilometres of rugged terrain traversed by elephants, hippos, and other wildlife. 

The trip can take three hours or more, and that’s when it can be made at all; during the rainy season, flooding shuts the route down entirely. 

Mababe Health Post nurse Lorato Dambe said, “The samples must arrive at the lab in Maun before 11 a.m. But that’s not always possible due to the distance and difficult road conditions, leading to possible contamination of samples.”

Moreover, the majority of Botswana’s population lives less than 5 km away from a health facility, there are exceptions to this rule like Mababe.

To help close the gap in access, UNFPA and Botswana’s Ministry of Health have launched, Drone for Health, an innovative initiative that, rather than relying on ground transportation to connect people and care, has taken to the skies.

“The drones will improve health-care delivery as they will address terrain constraints and challenges of limited resources, such as vehicles – and reduce preventable deaths,” said Ngami District Health management team coordinator Dr. Sandra Maripe-Ebutswe.

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