ON the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu nurse Dominic Viratos sometimes treks many hours across Pentecost Island delivering life-saving vaccines to vulnerable children.
A slow journey from the island’s Catholic mission hospital in Melsisi through thick jungle often takes him to remote villages where no vehicle can travel.
Delivering vaccines by foot means that the tiny hospital, founded by Marist missionaries, is left short-staffed.
So a world-first commercial project to fly medicines by drone comes as a godsend, considering that Vanuatu has an infant mortality rate of 23 deaths per 1000 births – significantly higher than developed Western nations like Australia where infant mortality rates sit just under four deaths per 1000 births.
“When we have heavy rains, the trucks cannot cross the rivers,” Mr Viratos said.
“So, with the drone, it’ll be a big help because it can go deliver the vaccines and come back.”
While drones are used in the military and for photography, they are yet to be used commercially for transport.
An Australian company is one of two to be awarded the world’s first-ever commercial contracts, with the Vanuatu Government trialling the use of drones to bring much-needed vaccines to children on remote, rural islands.
Vanuatu has more than 80 islands spread over about 1600km, and only about one-third of the inhabited islands have established roads and air landing strips.
“Our vision is that in 2021 you can look up and see a drone overhead and think ‘that’s helping someone’,” the chief executive officer of Melbourne-based Swoop Aero Eric Peck, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq flying Hercules military transporters, said.
His company, together with German Wingcopter Holding, won the Vanuatu Government trial contract by out-bidding 18 other firms from around the world.
The project is supported by the United Nations children’s charity UNICEF, which is the largest vaccine procurer globally.
The use of drones will potentially overcome the need to transport vaccines into the field while keeping them cool.
“The challenges of reaching children in the remote islands of Vanuatu are immense, nurses often walk several hours to deliver vaccines to health clinics in these communities,” UNICEF Pacific representative Sheldon Yett said.
“Every child in the world has the right to lifesaving vaccines and this technology is a step towards reaching those children most at risk.”
During the first phase of testing, starting next month (December), drones will take off from an old airstrip on the remote northern side of the main island Efate.
They will fly over the offshore islands of Emao, Pele and Nguna and make a package drop at a cordoned-off area at a remote football field.
A month later, during the second phase, drones will transport vaccines to health facilities on the three islands.
The drone trials will engage health care workers from the facilities on the selected islands, as well as teachers, children and government officials, which is vital to share knowledge and expertise.