It can take hours to travel even short distances along the ramshackle dirt roads of Malawi, an impoverished African country with high rates of HIV, a virus that has taken a particularly acute toll on children.
With limited trips from remote towns and villages – where large swaths of the populace live – to the country’s sparsely scattered hospitals in the capital city of Lilongwe, where they get essential medical services, testing for the virus can be an arduous task.
To address this challenge, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) explores the potential use of drones to efficiently speed up the testing and diagnosis of HIV in infants amid debates over ethical issues and at a time when developing countries around the world are increasingly turning to the aerial devices to assist with humanitarian efforts.
In March, UNICEF began testing drones to deliver blood samples collected from some of Malawi’s faraway health clinics and flown to the centralized hospital in Lilongwe for analysis, a crucial part of helping those afflicted with HIV.
Allison Burtch, a hardware specialist with UNICEF, said more than 90 autonomous drone tests were conducted in Malawi through a mobile phone application, transferring pieces of paper with blood samples. In 2014, almost 40,000 children in Malawi were born to HIV-positive mothers. Burtch is hopeful that efforts like these could eventually help lower fatalities from the virus.
“In Malawi, 50 percent of children who are HIV-positive will die before the age of two,” she said.