Drones Deliver Vaccines On Island Nation Of Vanuatu

Dec 21, 2018

This week, 1-month-old Joy was vaccinated against hepatitis and tuberculosis. Those are standard childhood vaccinations, but there was something definitely non-standard about the way they reached Joy. They arrived by drone.

Joy and her mom, Julie Nowai, live on Erromango, part of Vanuatu, an island nation made up of some 80 Pacific islands, lying west of Fiji. With very few airfields, paved roads or available refrigeration in Vanuatu, around one in five children do not receive vaccines, according to the government.

In a bid to make sure children in remote spots are vaccinated, Vanuatu has launched a program using drones to deliver the medications.

The country's Ministry of Health and its Civil Aviation Authority are leading the project. UNICEF, the Australian Government and the nonprofit Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria are providing support.

Swoop Aero, an Australian drone company, delivered the vaccines on December 18. And baby Joy was the first child up. She missed getting vaccinated at birth because her mother was unable to walk 25 miles across the island's rugged terrain to reach available nurses, according to UNICEF.

"This is a significant step because it shows that a government is showing commitment to address the vaccine delivery issue and is interested in exploring new possibilities," Dr. Bruce Lee, an associate professor of international health at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, wrote in an email to NPR.

Registered nurse Miriam Nampil vaccinated Joy and a dozen other children as well as five pregnant women in Cook's Bay. Without the drone delivery, she would have faced the daunting task of carrying the ice boxes needed to keep the vaccines chilled on her trek to Cook's Bay.

Vaccinations require proper storage and handling, including steady temperature control.

During the 25-minute drone flight over Erromango, UNICEF said the vaccines were kept cool in styrofoam boxes padded with ice packs.

"When vaccines [are] flying around at different altitudes, one of the concerns is temperature exposure, because they aren't in a flying refrigerator," noted Dr. Lee of Hopkins.