In a global first the Vanuatu government has contracted and successfully used the services of a commercial drone company to transport vaccines to its remote areas. Now Vanuatu is the only country in the world to make its childhood vaccine program officially drone-dependent.
The vaccine delivery covered almost 40 kilometers of rugged mountainous terrain from Dillon’s Bay on the west side of the island to the east landing in remote Cook’s Bay, where 13 children and five pregnant women were vaccinated by Miriam Nampil, a registered nurse. Cook’s Bay, a small, scattered community that does not have a health centre or electricity, is only accessible by foot or small local boats. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, 35,000 children under age 5 In Vanuatu do not get all their shots because villages are difficult to access. So the country, with support from UNICEF, the Australian government and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, began its drone program. It will initially serve three islands but may be expanded to many more.
Henrietta H. Fore, UNICEF Executive Director said, “With the world still struggling to immunize the hardest to reach children, drone technologies can be a game changer for bridging that last mile to reach every child.”
Swoop Aero, an Australian start-up, won the contract after proving its drones could fly 30 miles over islands and land within a six-foot target circle in, drone trials last week.
During the drone flight on Erromango, the vaccines were carried in Styrofoam ice-packs with a temperature logger. An electronic indicator gets triggered if the temperature of the vaccines swings out of acceptable range.
As the drone arrived on Monday after at 25-minute flight, Cook’s Bay villagers performed a welcoming dance around it waving banana leaves. Vanuatu is “the perfect environment for this,” said Sheldon Yett, Unicef’s Pacific islands representative.
“This drone will change my life,” said Miriam Nampil, “normally, I must trek about two hours over the mountain each way, and the vaccine carriers are heavy.” She added.
With its eight-foot wingspan, the white Swoop drone can fly at speeds of up to 60 miles an hour maintaining 500 feet altitude and can handle rain and 30-mile-an-hour gusts, said Eric Peck, a former Australian Air Force pilot who founded Swoop with Josh Tepper, a drone racer and robotics expert.
The drone will soon be doing 80-mile round trips Peck said, and since it communicates with the Iridium satellite network, it can be piloted from anywhere in the world and can fly even if local cell networks go down. Swoop will train local pilots and help the health ministry build its own drones eventually, Peck said.
To introduce Vanuatu’s drone era, nurses are meeting local villagers, and national aviation officials invite them to watch test flights. Joseph Hing and Rebecca Olul of Unicef demonstrated a drone to children on the island of Epi, part of Vanuatu. The drone operators are contract bound to be held accountable and not be paid if they don’t deliver.
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