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Delivering global health... by drone?

Source: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Here's some old(ish) news that's new to me: a team of students in Boston have dreamed up a solution for delivering vaccines to remote and hard-to-reach areas -- by using drones. (The team refers to them as "unmanned aerial vehicles" or UAVs, however -- that's the preferred term for those in the burgeoning alt-drone community).

According to the Gates Foundation, which is funding the project through its Grand Challenges initiative, the drones "can be deployed by health care workers via cell phones to swiftly transport vaccines to rural locations." Announced in November, the $100,000 grant goes to Dr. George Barbastathis and his team of six MIT graduate students.

This way-outta-the-box idea grew from one of those "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if...?" conversations, the team explained in this Q&A. They said drones have been used before in healthcare settings (to transport blood samples to laboratories or for shipping antivenom to snakebite victims) but not for vaccines, as far as they know.

It's an interesting idea. Drones are getting cheaper by the day and the technology is accelerating; vaccination campaigns are also logistically challenging, particularly in remote or hard-to-reach areas. Using drones, perhaps, would mean no longer having to do this: 


Source: Global Polio Eradication Initiative

And drones would probably be useful for delivering medical supplies in conflict zonesrecent vaccination drive in war torn Syria required medical workers in farflung areas to drive for days on dangerous highways to fetch vaccines from a supply warehouse in Damascus (the vaccines must also be stored in cold temperatures, thus adding to the logistical challenges). Using drones, perhaps, could have saved time and reduced the risk to health care workers.

But on the other hand, drones -- even if you call them UAVs -- have a bad reputation in some parts of the world where vaccines are most needed. In Pakistan, for example, the polio eradication campaign has been seriously hampered by misinformation and deep suspicions of the West. Polio vaccine workers have been killed recently in Pakistan and Nigeria, where religious leaders in the past have denounced vaccines as part of a western plot to sterilize Muslims or spread AIDS. Taliban leaders have accused vaccination campaigns of being undercover spy networks -- and unfortunately, they have grounds for believing so, thanks to the CIAAnd the presence of military drones in Pakistan have directly affected vaccination efforts; in January 2012, a senior Taliban in Pakistan banned polio eradication efforts to pressure the United States to end its use of drone strikes. What would happen if drones became a part of public health efforts too?

For sure, Predator drones are a far cry from the friendly orange UAV in the picture above. But maintaining trust is vitally important to public health efforts. Would the mere optics of a drone participating in a vaccination campaign hamper its noble efforts? 

Jennifer Yang is the Toronto Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar




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