Drones deliver blood to prevent maternal death in Botswana
01 September 2021
Drones are providing life-saving care to women in remote parts of the southern African country, Botswana, who otherwise may die in childbirth.
For women in Botswana, especially those living in far-flung communities where medical supplies and blood may not be in stock, giving birth can be life-threatening. In 2019, the country recorded a maternal mortality rate of 166 deaths per 100,000 births, more than double the average for upper-middle-income countries.
“In times of giving birth when a woman has lost a lot of blood and may need to be transferred to a bigger medical facility, she first needs to be stabilized where she is before being driven out of that place. Timely delivery of blood can be lifesaving. A drone can be sent to deliver the blood so that the patient is stabilized,” said Lorato Mokganya, Chief Health Officer in the Ministry of Health and Wellness.
In an effort to curb the country’s preventable maternal deaths and overcome geographical barriers to leave no one behind, this innovative initiative will revolutionize the delivery of essential medical supplies and services across Botswana.
“Timeliness in attending to women who experience pregnancy and childbirth-related complications is paramount, especially in remote and hard-to-reach areas,” says Dimane Mpoeleng, Computer Science Lecturer at the Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST).
The leading causes of maternal deaths in Botswana are excessive bleeding, medically known as postpartum haemorrhage, complications after abortion and hypertensive disorders during pregnancy.
However, due to Botswana being a large and sparsely populated country, with long distances between lower and higher-level facilities, the last-mile delivery of lifesaving medical products and supplies can be a challenge. This is heightened in hard-to-reach places where there may be a shortage of vehicles, inaccessible roads, and inefficient supply chain systems.
Dr. Mpoeleng explains that drones will accelerate the reduction of preventable maternal death by delivering maternal health supplies and commodities, including essential obstetric care medicines, blood and blood products and laboratory specimens in a timely manner.
In May, the University, Ministry of Health and Wellness, Ministry of Tertiary Education, Research, Science and Technology, and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) joined forces to launch Botswana’s first drone delivery project, called “Drones For Health.”
With this initiative, Botswana also became the first country in Southern Africa and third on the African continent, after Ghana and Rwanda, to pilot drone technology for health care support. The use of drones to deliver essential medical supplies is expected to drastically reduce the delivery time from hours to minutes, innovating the logistics of obstetric emergency supplies to save more lives.
Beatrice Mutali, UNFPA Botswana Country Director, said the project is a game-changer, which will not only improve the maternal health situation in Botswana, but also transform the entire health system for the country.
“At UNFPA, we envision a world where no woman dies while giving a life, and this innovation partnership promises to alleviate the situation of the maternal deaths in Botswana,” Ms. Mutali said, stressing that innovation is an indispensable engine to bring transformative change for women, girls, and young people.
For example, women at rural health facilities such as Mogapi Health Centre, which serves a population of over 3,000, will benefit immensely from the speed and efficiency that the newly launched drone technology will bring to the health sector.
According to Dr. Mpoeleng, the project leader of Drone For Health, each battery-powered flying aerodrone has a delivery distance of 100 kilometers and can carry up to 2 kilograms of cargo. Four villages were chosen for the pilot project. To get to Lecheng from the BIUST campus in Palapye, it takes 32 kilometers by road but 11 kilometers by drone. To the village of Moremi, the 75-kilometer drive will be reduced to 36 kilometers by drone.
The drones will be automatically programmed for takeoff and landing and can carry back another load of supplies. Community members in the pilot areas offered their support towards the project by building all landing pads for the drones at the designated health posts.
In 2017, Botswana set a national Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) target of 71 deaths per 100,000 live births by 2025 and 54 deaths per 100,000 live births by 2030 to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3. If the current maternal death trend continues, Botswana is likely not to meet the SDG target.
Speaking at the launch, the Minister of Health and Wellness, Dr. Edwin Gorataone Dikoloti said, “The need to invest in innovative options to bridge the long distances, reduce current transportation costs, overcome road infrastructure challenges, and improve timely availability of essential emergency obstetric care drugs, commodities and supplies is therefore urgent.”
A 2017 report on maternal mortality rate shows that a significant proportion of maternal deaths in Botswana are preventable, with causes of maternal deaths attributed to factors such as timely availability of emergency obstetric care commodities and supplies, transportation challenges and referral delays.
The drones for health initiative was conceived in 2018 and will be implemented in three phases: Phases 1 and 2 will be dedicated to proof of concept and viability testing. Following a successful rollout, Phase 3 will be initiated to develop the business model, identify sustainable partnerships, scale and transfer innovation solutions to the Ministry of Wellness and Health.
“Now more than ever, innovation is critical to achieving the ‘leaving no one behind’ goal. And with innovation come powerful partnerships, hence our work with the university and ministries. We believe that today’s problems and changing context call for harnessing innovations that can provide breakthrough solutions that deliver sexual and reproductive health for all,” UNFPA’s Country Director said.