Life-Saving Drones Fly Medicine to Tanzania's Remotest Spots

(Bloomberg) -- Blood and medicine-filled drones swoop over Lake Victoria, bringing vital care to some of Tanzania’s most remote places.

That’s the goal of the state-owned Commission for Science and Technology, or Costech, which since late 2017 has carried out dozens of drone flights in collaboration with Wingcopter and Deutsche Post AG’s DHL to Ukerewe, the lake’s biggest island. Echoing an initiative in nearby Rwanda, the pilot project has already reached more than 8,000 patients and could help revolutionize medical services in East Africa’s largest country.

Life-Saving Drones Fly Medicine to Tanzania's Remotest Spots

“We were able to deliver anti-venom to farmers who had been bitten by snakes and needed medical care quickly to avoid amputation of their limbs, or even death,” said George Mulamula, project head at Costech. The next stage, he said, is to secure funding to increase the drones’ medical loads to 45 kilograms (99 pounds) from 6 kilograms and widen their range to all of the more than 80 Tanzanian islands on Africa’s biggest lake.

It’s a project that may be especially welcome in Tanzania, which is twice the size of California and home to about 57 million people. The United Nations Children’s Fund says the proportion of government spending going toward the health sector has declined over the past five years and remains short of the amount needed to provide basic services. Malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis are the main health threats.

Life-Saving Drones Fly Medicine to Tanzania's Remotest Spots

‘Timely Delivery’

“I know of places in Tanzania so remote that the state-run Medical Stores Department could take several days to deliver medical supplies,” said Syriacus Buguzi, a doctor and public-health advocate in the commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, which is about 800 kilometers (500 miles) from the lake. “Ultimately, people’s lives are transformed through timely delivery of medicines and medical supplies,” he said, welcoming the potential impact of drones.

So far, the project has had 150,000 euros ($169,590) in funding from Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH, or GIZ, on behalf of Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Mulamula said. Tanzania’s MSD contracted GIZ and Costech to run the project.

Life-Saving Drones Fly Medicine to Tanzania's Remotest Spots

In the test phase, when local medics on Ukerewe Island received patients needing assistance -- such as a snake-bite victim or an expectant mother needing blood -- they text messaged the referral hospital in Mwanza region. The treatment could then arrive by drone in 40 minutes, Mulamula said.

“The whole idea is to have new forms of transport that enhance green mobility and secondly to have a cost efficient delivery instead of using a truck, which takes two days to reach the site,” he said.

There’s still a long way to go. Lake Victoria is divided between Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, with the portion in Tanzanian territory roughly the area of Rwanda alone. Mulamula said his organization is working with the World Bank and other Tanzanian institutions to prepare the next phase.

“We will sit down with MSD to see how we can roll out this project across all the islands,” he said.

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