(Reuters) – Malawi has started a test programme that uses drones to improve access to HIV testing for babies. Various factors, including poor roads and high transport costs, in remote areas often result in delays in testing that can prevent access to vital antiretroviral treatment. Sharon Reich reports.

UNICEF is testing drones in Malawi to see if they can reduce waiting times for HIV test results in rural areas.

The first successful flight completed a 10 kilometer (6.2 miles) route travelling from a community health center to a hospital in the capital Lilongwe.

Poor roads and lack of transportation make it hard for mothers in remote areas of Malawi to get to labs capable of testing. And once the tests are run, it takes about two months to get results.

The UN Children’s agency estimates that if the flights are cost-effective the drones would be able to carry up to 250 tests at once.

Judith Sherman, the head of UNICEF Malawi’s HIV and Aids program.


“There are many delays in the continuum of getting HIV positive children on treatment, they need to come in early for testing, ideally before 2 months, between 6 and 8 weeks, their tests, the dry bloodspots need to get from the health facilities to one of the 8 laboratories nationwide.”

This is the first time the technology is being used to improve HIV services in the country, which still has one of the highest HIV rates in the world.

And for Malawian mothers like this woman, if the drone testing is successful, it could make all the difference to her baby’s survival.