BENIN – Drones have been deployed deliver maternal health medicines very quickly to even to remote locations of rural Benin.

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Benin on March 16, 2020, officials realized the virus posed a serious threat to other health priorities, particularly maternal and newborn health.

A lack of personal protective equipment for health-care providers hampered the health-care system, and a number of health-care facilities were forced to close.

When a health worker became ill with the virus and half of the staff was quarantined, the Cotonou Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de la Mère et de l’Enfant de la Lagune, for example, was closed to pregnant women.

Health officials and humanitarian organizations such as UNFPA were also concerned about the health-care supply chain’s continuity, particularly in remote and rural areas.

I’ve already been in situations where people needed a blood transfusion and the blood had to come from far away… As a health worker, this is the kind of thing that stays with you,” said Dr. Ismail Lawani, a surgeon and lecturer.

Dr. Lawani is also a professional drone pilot, working on a UNFPA project funded by Takeda Pharmaceutical Company Limited, which was launched in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, to deliver vital medicines, particularly maternal health medicines and blood, to remote areas.

The drone project began its pilot testing phase in early 2021, with a drone capable of traveling 15km and carrying up to 5kg.

It drew on the local expertise of Global Partners, a Benin-based start-up that develops and sells drone technology for use in agriculture, surveillance, and biodiversity projects.

Local knowledge is essential not only for meeting pandemic-related needs, but also for overcoming pre-existing supply and transportation issues.

In Benin, there are many regions that are quite isolated, particularly in certain periods of the year,” explained Djawad Ramanou, a UNFPA representative and lead on the drone project.

In Firou, for example, there’s a small bridge that connects Firou to other communes, and during the rainy season the water levels rise and completely cut off Firou 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 a medical emergency, the use of drones to secure extra medical supplies can make all the difference. For example, blood supplies, which Dr. Lawani mentioned as a critical need in remote areas, are frequently required when women suffer from postpartum hemorrhage, which is one of the leading causes of maternal death worldwide.

Without drones, if we run out of supplies, we have to quickly evacuate the patient to the nearest health centre in Kérou, which takes a long time,” said Germaine Balogoun, a midwife in Firou. This means that many people may die while being transported to the hospital. As a result, the drone lowers the risk of maternal death in our health center.”

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