Analysing straightforward blood tests in remote areas of Botswana been made simpler by using drones to fetch and deliver samples, eradicating cumbersome road access challenges.
By road, samples would first have to be collected by an ambulance and taken to a centre with a major hospital and lab services.
This can be over hundreds of kilometres through territory characterised by rugged terrain populated by elephants, hippos and other wildlife.
For instance, a 116km trip to a remote town of Mababe close to the southern corner boundary of the Chobe National Park, could take about three hours to reach from Maun, the biggest town in the Okavango Delta region.
That’s if the road there is even usable because in the rainy season, flooding shuts down the B334 entirely.
“The samples have to arrive at the lab in Maun before 11 a.m.,” said Mababe Health Post nurse Lorato Dambe.
“But that’s not always possible due to the distance and difficult road conditions, leading to possible contamination of samples.’
While the majority of Botswana’s population lives less than five kilometres from a health facility, there are exceptions to this rule – like Mababe.
To help close the gap in access, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Botswana’s Ministry of Health have taken to the skies through “Drones for Health.”
The programme aims to reduce delivery times from hours to minutes for essential medical supplies and samples from healthcare hubs, to reach remote clinics.
“Speed is everything,” said nurse David Selemogwe of Somelo Health Post.
“If samples sit for a long time, at some point the specimen starts deteriorating and is not so useful anymore.”
Between 25 and 40 per cent 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.
But it’s not just samples that the drones can transport.
The idea is also to curb preventable maternal deaths in Botswana through the swift delivery of maternal health supplies, such as blood, equipment and medicine.