A 1-month-old named Joy Nowai became the first person to ever get inoculated by vaccines delivered via drone yesterday. The baby lives on the island-nation of Vanuatu, where 1 in 5 children aren’t fully immunized and delivering vaccines can be difficult due to the terrain. Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health partnered with UNICEF to get the ambitious drone project underway.
“Today’s small flight by drone is a big leap for global health,” Henrietta H. Fore, UNICEF’s executive director, said in a statement yesterday. “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.”
UNICEF points out that vaccines must be stored at specific temperatures, which is just one of the many hurdles of providing medical care in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. The country is comprised of 80 mountainous islands and limited roads, which means that delivering vaccines can be incredibly difficult. Doctors currently have to travel sometimes for hours by foot to get vaccines where they’re needed.
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.
To deliver the vaccines for Joy, the drones, operated by an Australian company called Swoop Aero, carried styrofoam boxes packed with ice and electronic monitors to make sure that the vaccines never reached an undesirable temperature in the warm environment. During trials, the drones traveled over 31 miles (50 kilometers) and landed within 7 feet (2 meters) of its desired destination.
UNICEF notes that Vanuatu is very interested in utilizing drones for not just vaccines, but also for delivering much needed medical supplies to remote and underserved areas.
“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,” Fore said. “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.”