How Malawi is using drones to detect malaria hotspots

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Scientists at Malawi Liverpool Wellcome Trust are using drone footage to identify bodies of water infested with malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Africa is turning to drone technology to fill in the gaps in often overburdened and under-resourced healthcare systems, starting with drones.

In Kasungu (Malawi), researchers at the Malawi Liverpool Wellcome Trust (MLW) are using drone footage and GPS coordinates of water bodies rich in mosquito larvae to pinpoint malaria hotspots, sample the water and suggest ways to control the spread of the disease.

Modifying larval habitat, also known as larval source management (LSM), is one of the most effective methods of disease control. However, this approach is often considered impractical, due to the perceived difficulties in identifying target areas. High-resolution drone-mapping could be the solution to this challenge.

The MLW research team programmed drones to monitor mosquito breeding grounds in the central district of Kasungu. Cheap to buy and easy to use, the drones were set to work last year to help scientists map which bodies of water were infested with mosquitoes, carrying malaria in a continent laden with some of the worst healthcare outcomes.

Currently, 44 per cent of the World Health Organization (WHO) member states in developing countries have less than 1 doctor per 1000 patients, which is worse than the WHO recommended ratio of 1:600. In Malawi, the doctor-to-patient ratio is 1:50,000. This makes battling epidemics like malaria, which killed 2,551 Malawi citizens in 2020, most of them children, a huge challenge.

"We were very impressed when we saw the researchers flying their objects which they said will help in fighting this disease," 87-year old Stanley Ngwira told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"I usually get malaria twice or thrice per year, especially during the rainy season," he said, hoping that surveillance in the sky might do away with long treks on foot to his nearest hospital in the south-east African nation.

Such innovations can shorten the long lines of patients at overstretched clinics and hospitals, said the research team behind the project.

In the UK, drones have also been tested with a view towards delivering medical supplies, and the aviation regulator has provided the first flying licences for these devices. 

Funding for healthtech in Africa has risen in recent years, with the sector expected to be worth more than $100bn (almost £80m) by 2030, according to a report from Google and the International Finance Corporation. Although still budding, investment is already reaping results in rural outposts and the most deprived communities, the study found.

"We are not saying that these innovations must replace medical experts," said Olawande Daramola, a professor of information technology at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. "They are a form of support to increase the productivity of medical experts, and also help improve medical treatments and healthcare services where needed.”

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