Drones to transport maternal health drugs to rural Benin – Benin
COTONOU, Benin – When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Benin on March 16, 2020, authorities knew the virus posed a serious threat to other health priorities, particularly maternal and newborn health. The healthcare system faced a shortage of personal protective equipment for healthcare providers and a number of healthcare facilities have closed. The Cotonou University Hospital Center of the Mother and Child of the Lagoon, for example, was closed to pregnant women when a health worker fell ill with the virus and half of the staff were quarantined.
Health officials and humanitarian groups like UNFPA were also concerned about the continuity of the health care supply chain, especially in remote and rural areas.
“I’ve been in situations before where people needed a blood transfusion and the blood had to come from afar … As a health worker, that’s the kind of thing that stays with you,” said Dr Ismail Lawani, a surgeon and lecturer.
Dr Lawani is also a professional drone pilot, working on a UNFPA project funded by Takeda Pharmaceutical Company Limited, launched amid the COVID-19 pandemic, using drones to deliver life-saving drugs, especially drugs for maternal health and blood in isolated areas.
Use local expertise
The drone project began its pilot test phase in early 2021, using a drone that can travel a distance of 15 km and weighs up to 5 kg.
It drew on the local expertise of Global Partners, a Benin-based start-up that develops and supplies drone technology for use in agriculture, surveillance and biodiversity projects. Local knowledge is essential not only to meet pandemic-related needs, but also to overcome pre-existing supply and transportation challenges.
“In Benin, there are many quite isolated regions, especially at certain times of the year,” said Djawad Ramanou, representative of UNFPA and head of the drone project. “In Firou, for example, there is a small bridge that connects Firou to other municipalities, and during the rainy season, the water level rises and completely cuts Firou off from the other villages. But with a drone, we can reach motherhood there. So far, if it was raining, the hospital was shut down and patients could not get the care they needed.
Using drones to secure additional medical supplies can make all the difference in a health emergency. For example, blood supplies, which Dr Lawani mentioned as being a critical need in remote areas, are often needed when women experience postpartum hemorrhage – one of the leading causes of maternal death worldwide. .
Germaine Baloun, midwife in Firou, described what happens when medical supplies run out: “Without drones, if we run out of supplies, we must quickly evacuate the patient to the nearest health center in Kérou, which takes a long time. And that means many can die while being transported to hospital. This is why the drone reduces the risk of maternal death in our health center.