Sunset in Vanuatu with children playing on the beach

Drone delivers life-saving vaccines to baby on remote Pacific island

Image credit: Pixabay

A one-month-old baby on the small Pacific island of Vanuatu has become the first person in the world to be immunised using vaccines delivered by a commercial drone, the United Nations (UN) said, raising hopes that the method could save lives in other far-flung areas.

The UN’s children agency, Unicef, arranged for the drone to be flown 25 minutes across 40km (24 miles) of mountainous terrain to get to Cook’s Bay area on the island of Erromango – a journey which would have taken hours by foot or boat.

Vanuatu is the world’s first government to contract a commercial drone company to deliver vaccines, according to Unicef, which hailed the successful trial on Tuesday as a “big leap for global health”, according to a statement from Unicef’s executive director Henrietta Fore.

The UN children’s organisation hopes that drone delivery will become of vital importance in remote areas, with Fore adding: “With the world still struggling to immunise the hardest to reach children, drone technologies can be a game changer for bridging that last mile to reach every child.”

Miriam Nampil was the nurse who picked up the vaccines, including those that immunise against polio and tuberculosis, and administered them to 13 children and five pregnant mothers. Nampil was also the nurse who injected the world’s first drone-delivered vaccine into a one-month old girl.

Nurse Miriam Nampil vaccinates baby Joy Nowai to immunise her against tuberculosis and Hepatitis B.

Nurse Miriam Nampil vaccinates baby to immunise her against tuberculosis and Hepatitis B - Unicef/Jason Chute

Image credit: Unicef/Jason Chute

“It’s extremely hard to carry ice boxes to keep the vaccines cool while walking across rivers, mountains, through the rain, across rocky ledges. I’ve relied on boats, which often get cancelled due to bad weather,” said Nampil.

“As the journey is often long and difficult, I can only go there once a month to vaccinate children. But now, with these drones, we can hope to reach many more children in the remotest areas of the island.”

During the drone flight on Erromango, the vaccines were carried in Styrofoam boxes with ice-packs with a temperature logger. An electronic indicator is triggered if the temperature of the vaccines had swung out of acceptable range.

“It is very innovative. I hope it will extend to a wider region,” said Gina Dehinavanua, of humanitarian agency CARE International, on Wednesday. “It will help our kids and ensure those aged between zero and five have all the necessary vaccines to grow up as a child.”

According to UNICEF data from 2016, 28 out of every 1,000 babies born in Vanuatu die before they reach the age of five, while only one in five children are fully immunised and 20 per cent of children in the region not receiving such important vaccinations due to the difficulty of getting supplies into the country.

The Pacific island nation, with about 280,000 people spread across roughly 80 islands, is one of the world’s poorest countries, with only around a third of its inhabited islands having airfields and proper roads.

“Today’s first-of-a-kind vaccine delivery has enormous potential not only for Vanuatu, but also for the thousands of children who are missing out on vaccines across the world,” added Fore. “This is innovation at its best and shows how we can unlock the potential of the private sector for the greater good of the world’s children.”

In tests last week, the Ministry of Health, with support from Unicef, conducted drone trials with two drone operators, Swoop Aero and WingCopter, using test payloads. Swoop Aero, the Australian company responsible for the successful drone delivery, passed the first phase of trials by landing the payloads within 2m of the target after a 50km flight over numerous islands and way points.

The government of Vanuatu aims to integrate the drone delivery of vaccines into their national immunisation programme, using such drones more widely to distribute health supplies. Data from the trials will be able to show how the drones can be used commercially in similar settings around the world.

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