Nepal anti-TB drone project awarded

Photos: BNMT

Drone therapy for tuberculosis diagnosis in Nepal’s remote and hard to reach mountains has won at the 2020 International Air Cargo Association (TIACA) Sustainability Awards and will receive $10,000 in prize money as a start-up category winner.

The winning project, Drone Optimised Therapy System (DrOTS) by Nepal Flying Labs links rural health posts with high-end diagnostic tool via drones to improve the accessibility of tuberculosis diagnostic tests.

“In a year marked by a global pandemic which disrupted our industry, problem solving and forward-thinking companies like Nepal Flying Labs bring hope that air cargo can come out of this crisis stronger and more resilient,” says Céline Hourcade of TIACA, which celebrates and encourages outstanding industry initiatives driving sustainability in air cargo.

Under DrOTS, drones fly from a central district hospital to health posts in the mountains to collect sputum samples and deliver both diagnoses and treatment to patients living in up-country villages. The samples are tested using a high-end GenExpert kit.

If they are positive, patients are given DOTS (directly observed treatment short course) treatment using smart pill boxes, which keep electronic records of whether or not patients have taken the antibiotics regularly.

The highly competitive award evaluated humanitarian projects based on three aspects of sustainability -- economic social and environmental -- as well as innovation and practicality of the applied solution. The winners were announced online on 10 December.

The project had also won the prestigious industry award from the Association for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – the AUVSI XCELLENCE Award 2020 in Humanitarian and Public Safety category in October.

The goal of this project is to assist Nepal’s Ministry of Health in generating data on tuberculosis and support it in its efforts to reduce the prevalence of the infection. This perfectly curable medieval disease is the biggest infectious killer in the world today, more than HIV or malaria.

While Nepal is a role model in the community-based DOTS treatment, which ensures index patients are taking their medicines, this alone will not suffice in the battle against TB, since a patient would often have already infected others in the household and workplace. Which is why active case finding and early treatment is the key.

The first comprehensive national TB prevalence survey 2018-19 in Nepal showed that the burden of TB in Nepal is much higher than previously estimated. There are now known to be 245 TB cases per 100,000 people – which means there are 69,000 new cases each year. Some 6,000 people in Nepal die every year because of the infection while every other Nepali is a carrier of TB.

“Tragically over 35,000 cases of TB are not due to difficulties reaching the basic health services. To accelerate progress towards the end of TB in Nepal we must increase efforts to reach remote and disadvantaged populations with high quality TB services,” says Maxine Caws, epidemiologist with BNMT. “The drone project project represents one such approach to solve this problem, and also has the potential to address many other health challenges facing rural populations of Nepal.”

The DrOTS test flight was conducted successfully in Piuthan district in western Nepal last year. Since then, over 106 flights have been carried out, collecting and delivering more than 742 sputum samples, with a result of 26 positive cases from eight remote health facilities. The technology has also been used for TB control in Zimbabwe and Papua New Guinea.

Locals wait for drone to arrive.

Using the drone interface.

The drones weigh 9kg when empty and can carry another 7kg in a cargo hold designed to protect against biohazards; they can be airborne for 30 minutes. The craft flies at speeds of up to 1km per minute, and is controlled by a pilot at the take-off point who coordinates with a health worker at the destination.

The DrOTS project is a multidisciplinary consortium of Birat Nepal Medical Trust (BNMT Nepal), DroNepal, Nepal Flying Labs, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, UK and WeRobotics, Switzerland working in partnership with the Nick Simons Institute, National Tuberculosis Centre, and Stony Brook University, USA.

Says Biplav Pageni of Nepal Flying Labs: “We hope to scale our drone cargo technology to other rural locations and establish networks of medical cargo drones to help more people in the coming days. Drones are said to be the future of air cargo but I believe they are the present and we are using it to save lives in Nepal.”

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