Drones deliver vaccines to one-month old baby in remote island of Vanuatu

  • A one-month old baby in Pacific island nation Vanuatu became the first person ever to receive a vaccination delivered to medical personnel by drone.
  • Australian tech firm Swoop Aero was contracted by the nation’s government to trial the system.
  • Vaccines are typically difficult to transport around the island nation due to storage constraints and poor accessibility.
A Swoop Aero drone is prepared to deliver vaccines to a remote region in Vanuatu.
Source: Swoop Aero
A Swoop Aero drone is prepared to deliver vaccines to a remote region in Vanuatu.

A one-month old baby in the Pacific island of Vanuatu became the first person in history to be given a vaccine delivered commercially by drone on Tuesday.

The drone travelled almost 25 miles to deliver medical equipment to the remote area of Cook's Bay, which is usually only accessible by foot or locally operated boats. Thirteen children and five pregnant women were vaccinated in the area that lacks basic healthcare system.

Tech from Australian firm Swoop Aero successfully delivered the vaccines to Cook's Bay, marking the first time a government has contracted a commercial drone company to transport vaccines to remote areas. Vanuatu's government is looking to integrate drone delivery into its national immunization program and roll the technology out for wider distribution of medical supplies.

Vaccines are difficult to transport as they must be stored at precise temperatures. Vanuatu is a particularly difficult location for vaccine delivery due to its warm climate and a limited number of roads across its 80 islands. Around one in five Vanuatuan children consequently miss out on essential childhood vaccinations.

The first baby to be vaccinated by the commercial drone delivered vaccine, Joy Nowai, with her mother Julie Nowai.
Jason Chute | Unicef
The first baby to be vaccinated by the commercial drone delivered vaccine, Joy Nowai, with her mother Julie Nowai.

"Today's first-of-a-kind vaccine delivery has enormous potential not only for Vanuatu, but also for the thousands of children who are missing out on vaccines across the world," Henrietta H. Fore, Unicef's executive director, said in a press release on Tuesday. "This is innovation at its best and shows how we can unlock the potential of the private sector for the greater good of the world's children."

Miriam Nampil, the nurse who administered the vaccine, added: "It's extremely hard to carry ice boxes to keep the vaccines cool while walking across rivers, mountains, across rocky ledges. But with these drones, we hope to reach many more children in the remotest areas of the island."

Vanuatu's trial comes amid a rise in the use of drones in healthcare delivery – particularly among developing countries.

Last week, Ghana's government signed a deal with U.S. firm Zipline that will see drones delivering blood and other supplies to hospitals. Rwanda has also deployed drones to deliver supplies and blood to doctors in rural locations.

In Malawi, a scheme is being trialled where drones transfer blood samples to and from hospitals to speed up HIV diagnoses in infants, while Papua New Guinea transports samples from people with suspected tuberculosis to hospitals via drone.