In today's digital age, people are coming up with new uses for technology all the time. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV's), otherwise known as drones, have been seen in the sky for almost 20 years, completing tasks from deliveries to surveillance. Given the unique abilities of these aerial vehicles, they've proved specifically useful in hard-to-reach areas. And, as we'll discover below, they have a special role to play in healthcare. The uses of technology are no longer limited to IT or space travel. People are using technological developments to solve immediate challenges in industries from agriculture to medicine.
We're looking at how, in South Africa, drones could potentially be used in the fight against malaria...
SA health services to drones in the fight against malaria
While the project is not officially off the ground yet, the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) is evaluating how drones could be used to help fight against the spread of malaria in the country. In an interview with News24, Professor Rajendra Maharaj, Director of the SAMRC’s Office of Malaria Research, had this to say...
“One of the main objectives is to include larval (the aquatic phase of the mosquito life cycle) control in addition to the use of indoor residual spraying,” he says. “To control the larvae, we need to find the mosquito breeding sites, which are small bodies of water, including temporary pools of water such as in roadside ditches and puddles of water around and under vegetation."
"Traditionally this has been done by control staff walking through areas where malaria cases have been identified to identify and geo-locate (using a GPS) them for treatment with insecticides. However, this was not an effective method since people usually walk along roads and pathways, whereas the breeding site may be a small puddle under a bush or an indentation in the ground that has filled with water and would not be noticed by an individual not straying from the usual paths,” says Maharaj. In areas where people don't usually traverse, drones could be used to identify possible breeding sites.
Maharaj also says that, once a malaria case has been diagnosed in a specific house or area, drones can be used to provide aerial footage of the surrounding environment to check for potential breeding sites. And, if these sites are located, the drone can even dispense insecticide into the body of water to decrease the mosquito population in that site. This helps limit the spread of malaria, and eliminates the need for a person to physically apply the insecticide, thereby putting themselves at risk.
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According to Maharaj, a second project is underway to use drones to inspect traditional houses for deficiencies in the roofs that could either serve as an entry point for mosquitoes or, in the case of flat roofs, identify mosquito breeding sites that contribute to the available pool of mosquito vectors. Changes in identified deficiencies can also impact malaria transmission.
Maharaj says they are running trials in the Ndumo area in the northeast of KwaZulu-Natal “since this area is targeting malaria elimination by 2023”. If the project is successful, the South African Medical Research Council plans to introduce drones into the malaria control programmes of KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga.
The role of technology in healthcare is one that will continue to evolve as new advancements are tested and rolled out. Tech can help with everything from providing access to medical supplies to finding solutions to age-old diseases. Using drones in the fight against malaria is just one example of unique possibilities technology offers.