flying drone

Drones to deliver life-saving vaccines in remote Vanuatu

Life-saving vaccines and health supplies will be delivered by drone to remote communities in the Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu in a series of tests to be conducted by the nation's Government.

Less than a third of the inhabited islands in the country have airfields or proper roads, and drones are seen as a good way to overcome the poor infrastructure.

The trial is the first of its kind in the Pacific to explore the capacity, efficiency and effectiveness of drones to get vaccines to otherwise inaccessible areas, said the UN children’s agency Unicef, which is supporting the effort.

“If the trial shows that vaccine delivery using drones can work, and that it can be integrated into our existing national and provincial systems, then it will change the way we operate forever,” George Taleo, director general of Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health, said in a statement.

Vanuatu, a former Anglo-French colony once known as the New Hebrides, is an island nation in the South Pacific. Its estimated population of around 270,000 is spread out across 65 of the country’s more than 80 islands.

Located on the Ring of Fire, a horseshoe-shaped band of volcanoes and fault lines circling the edges of the Pacific Ocean, Vanuatu is quake-prone and highly vulnerable to natural disasters, including storms.

In March 2015, a monster cyclone wrecked fisheries, and ravaged crops and livestock, causing damage costing an estimated $450m (£352m).

Vanuatu is one of the world’s poorest nations and a third of its population lacks access to basic services, while violence against women is common.

The Asian Development Bank says 23 babies out of every 1,000 born in Vanuatu die before their first birthday.

“We welcome innovative measures to ensure that every child is reached,” said Unicef Pacific representative Sheldon Yett. “Ensuring vaccines are consistently available in isolated and remote communities is one of the keys to sustaining high rates of immunisation.”

The growing availability, improved performance and falling cost of drones offer the opportunity for new applications in challenging environments like Vanuatu, the statement said.

The drone trial will be conducted in three phases through 2018.

In December, Unicef said it was teaming up with Malawi’s government to test whether drones could make delivery of aid, including medical supplies, faster and more effective during humanitarian disasters.

Other aid agencies have also tried out drones in recent years, but they are not yet being deployed on a large scale for humanitarian purposes.

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