An estimated 10 million HIV patients around the world are unable to access life-saving medications. Often, it’s because they are located in areas so remote that ferrying the drugs becomes an extremely slow and time-consuming process. Johnson & Johnson wants to change that. That’s why the company is funding a drone program in Uganda, East Africa, to deliver HIV treatments.
Overall, there are 1.5 million people in Uganda living with HIV. The rates of infection on the mainland are declining with the help of antiretroviral therapies provided by the Ugandan Ministry of Health. At the same time, in Uganda’s Kalangala District – which is made up of 84 islands – infection rates are known to increase by up to 25% annually. While only seven islands have healthcare facilities, continuity of care is further disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic putting an acute strain on Ugandan healthcare systems.
Navigating to a challenging location
The Kalangala islands are widely scattered in Lake Victoria, the world’s largest tropical lake. Boat journeys to these islands are expensive, unreliable, and fraught with dangerously unpredictable weather and strong currents. As Robert Kimbui, senior supply chain manager with Johnson & Johnson, explains:
Due to the large water mass, access to medicines and treatments is a huge challenge because you have to travel to and between the islands by boat.
And that makes these islands the perfect candidate for medical drone delivery.
J&J’s HIV drug delivery drones
Johnson & Johnson is using small 22-pound drones for the pilot program that can carry up to 10 pounds of HIV medication.
These drones can make multiple trips in a single day, serving 20 landing sites across five islands, and reaching more than 3,700 inhabitants – roughly one-third of whom are living with HIV/AIDS.
Once healthcare workers remove the HIV medications inside the drones, they send the flying machines back to their starting point, stocked with lab and blood samples from villagers who have received the treatment to allow for regular testing of their viral loads.
Not your usual medical drone delivery program
Africa has become a poster child of sorts for medical delivery drones. Other countries, like Rwanda and Ghana, are also using drones to deliver blood and medical supplies. But the Kalangala project stands out because it has been designed to be sustainable with support from the community, local partners, and the Ministry of Health.
This means that villagers will be hired and trained to provide technical support for regular, ongoing drone deliveries and healthcare workers will be trained to administer the medicines.
The project began in April 2021 and will run through April 2022, when Johnson & Johnson and its partners will conclude the study into the benefits of the technology for HIV patients living on the island and how it can be scaled to solve other healthcare access challenges. As Kimbui sums up:
We can use drones for anything, including vaccines or any other kind of healthcare product. This pilot project is a unique showcase of how we can use smart supply chain technology to tackle geographical boundaries. It is very impressive and exciting.
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