Rwanda Uses Drones To Deliver Cancer Drugs To Patients


By Julius Bizimungu

The lockdown measures to contain the spread of the new coronavirus have complicated many activities including access to certain medical services, including cancer treatment.

According to doctors, cancer patients who fail to get the right care and access to medical services are more likely to die from the disease as opposed to dying from coronavirus.

To limit that, Partners in Health (PIH), an organisation which treats cancer patients from its centre at Butaro Hospital, has partnered with Zipline to extend cancer care services closer to where patients live.

At Butaro Hospital in Burera District, PIH deals with different types of cancer patients: some are hospitalised after being diagnosed with cancer, others are outpatients who consult with the hospital once or twice a month to check the functioning of their organs.

The third group of patients are those that receive what is known as intravenous treatment – a type of chemotherapy used to treat and kill cancer cells, delivered with an intravenous therapy inserted in a large vein, usually in the arm, hand or chest.

The same group of patients who receive intravenous treatment could as well receive oral treatment without necessarily having to travel from home.

“With the lockdown, that group of outpatients could not move around the country. They could not leave their districts and come to the clinic,” PIH Executive Director Dr. Joel Mubiligi said.

In trying to find the solution, PIH realized that Zipline – an American logistics firm – could be an answer to the complicated challenge that was posed by the new coronavirus.

“We were trying to explore different options, and Zipline happened to be extremely prompt in responding. The following day we were already transporting drugs,” Dr. Mubiligi noted.

The delivery service

Zipline currently delivers blood across different hospitals in the country using unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones from its bases in Muhanga and Kayonza districts.

Leveraging its existing network, the company is seen as transformative in saving cancer patients whose lives are already complicated by the disease.

Officer in charge of Zipline’s Global Health Partnerships, Israel Bimpe said they will be flying their drones to deliver drugs that are critical for patients, and they see that as an effective solution.

“Previously, a patient would be transported to Butaro Hospital from Gisagara for instance, which is a long distance given how far the two districts are. Using drones could be an effective way to save the lives of these patients,” he said.

The partnership will see Zipline deliver cancer drugs to district hospitals closer to where patients are, and PIH medics will work with district doctors to provide care to the patients.

So far, Zipline drones have delivered cancer drugs to 18 cancer patients in eleven districts in the past two weeks.

This has allowed patients to continue getting the right care during the coronavirus pandemic.

Bimpe noted that elsewhere vaccination rates are reducing because hospitals are getting overwhelmed, and that drone delivery services like Zipline can serve in this situation.

“In Ghana, we are delivering personal protective equipment, and we have started delivering Covid-19 test samples from up country hospitals to the capital,” he said.


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