COTONOU, Benin – When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Benin on 16 March 2020, authorities knew the virus posed a dire threat to other health priorities – especially maternal and newborn health. The health system faced a shortage of personal protective equipment for health-care providers and a number of health facilities closed. The Cotonou Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de la Mère et de l'Enfant de la Lagune, for instance, was closed to pregnant women when a health worker fell ill with the virus and half the staff were quarantined.
Health officials and humanitarian groups like UNFPA were also concerned about the continuity of the health-care supply chain, especially in remote and rural areas.
“I’ve already been in situations where people needed a blood transfusion and the blood had to come from far away... As a health worker, this is the kind of thing that stays with you,” said Dr. Ismail Lawani, a surgeon and lecturer.
Dr. Lawani is also a professional drone pilot, working on a UNFPA project funded by Takeda Pharmaceutical Company Limited, launched amid the COVID-19 pandemic, using drones to deliver vital medicines, particularly maternal health medicines and blood to isolated areas.
Using local expertise
The drone project began its pilot testing phase in early 2021, using a drone that can go a distance of 15km, carrying weight of up to 5kg.
It relied on the local expertise of Global Partners, a start-up based in Benin that develops and provides drone technology for use in agriculture, surveillance and biodiversity projects. Local insights are critical not only for addressing pandemic-related needs, but also for overcoming pre-existing supply and transport challenges.
“In Benin, there are many regions that are quite isolated, particularly in certain periods of the year,” explained Djawad Ramanou, a UNFPA representative and lead on the drone project. “In Firou, for example, there’s a small bridge that connects Firou to other communes, and during the rainy season the water levels rise and completely cut off Firou from other villages. But with a drone we can reach the maternity ward there. Until now, if it rained, the hospital was cut off and patients weren’t able to get the care they needed.”
The use of drones to secure extra medical supplies can make all the difference in a health emergency. For example, blood supplies, which Dr. Lawani mentioned being a critical need in remote areas, are often needed when women experience postpartum haemorrhage – one of the leading causes of maternal death globally.
Germaine Balogoun, a midwife in Firou, described what happens when medical supplies run dry: “Without drones, if we run out of supplies we have to quickly evacuate the patient to the nearest health centre in Kérou, which takes a long time. And it means that many may die while they are being transported to the hospital. That’s why the drone reduces the risk of maternal death in our health centre.”