For the past few years that Malawi has embraced the use of drone technology, many companies, especially the media industry, have found it an exciting and easier way to capture aerial photographs and videos during weddings, political rallies and church activities.
The drones are also being used to help foster development and humanitarian interventions in the country, from 2016, transporting laboratory samples for early infant HIV diagnosis.
While the country is generally spearheading the use of drones, scientists have also found it a significant tool to find solutions to the high burden of malaria which continues to claim lives especially under-five children.
A team of Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and Lancaster University, through Malawi Liverpool Welcome Trust, is using drones to identify mosquito breeding sites in Kasungu District.
Michelle Stanton one of the scientists said the drones are collecting data to identify the breeding sites to control the mosquito larva, thereby reducing the population of mosquitoes able to spread malaria in households.
“We are interested in this because we want to learn more about how malaria is transmitted in an area. So when mosquitoes are laying their eggs, we know which household or community is more at risk and we can also use the same information to target future drone activities,” she said.
Through the research, drones are flying over in the district between February and July during daylight while traps have been set in households in three villages of Chiponde, Malangano and Chikhombwe in the district.
The scientists are taking samples from the ground water into plastic tubes to examine and see if they can find evidence of mosquito larvae.
“We are doing this to help us identify the characteristics of the water that affect whether or not mosquito larvae are able to develop in it. We are hoping to be able to link what we observe on the ground with what we are able to see in these images. If we are able to learn how to identify areas which contain mosquito larvae with our drone images, then this could potentially help us to save a lot of time in the future,” Stanton said.
Further to catching images of breeding sites, the United Kingdom-based scientists have also set up mosquito traps in some people’s houses for two consecutive nights approximately once a month between March and July 2020. Chris Jones, an entomology scientist, said data collected from the water bodies, will be matched with the mosquitoes that will be caught in traps set in households
“We will look to see how the number of mosquitoes that we capture differs between houses in three villages, and how these numbers change as we move from wet to dry season,” he said.
The two scientists underscore the significance of the research, saying Malawi has in recent years registered considerable reductions in Malaria cases but the reductions have started to slow down, hence the need to look for different ways through which authorities can target risk communities.
Statistics at the Ministry of Health and Population indicate that malaria, a mosquito-borne disease, remains a burden and the most pressing health challenge for Malawi with an estimated six million cases occurring annually.
The national malaria prevalence in under-five children is also a concern, pegged at 26 percent as of 2017 as indicated by the 2017 Malawi Malaria Indicator Survey (MMIS).
Malaria control efforts have focused on scaling up interventions for prevention and treatment of the disease. Long Lasting Insecticide Nets continue to be distributed to pregnant women and children through routine channels and mass distribution campaigns to scale up vector control.
However, the 2017 MMIS says while such is the case, 18 percent of households do not have insecticide treated nets, signifying that some households are still at risk of contracting malaria.
The Health Sector Strategic Plan II for 2017-2022 points out that the coverage of Indoor Residual Spraying (IRS), however, is very low due to lack of financial resources and resistance to chemicals.
Programme Manager for Malaria Control Programme in the Ministry of Health and Population, Michael Kayange, said while the country has made significant strides to reduce malaria-related cases and deaths, research is an important element in fighting malaria, as it helps to answer questions on things that are impeding progress in the country’s programming.
“The research that is being done in Kasungu is basically trying to understand why malaria is prevalent in some districts that are far from lakeshores. It is not easy to walk and see all the breeding sites and the use of the drone seems to be the best for identifying such areas,” he said.
Kayange said at the moment they are able to manage larvae sources once identified or sometimes are compelled to introduce a biological agent that will eat up larvae. Currently, Malawi is among the African countries that have launched a malaria vaccine called RTS,S being administered to children up to two years of age.
World Health Organisation admits that Malaria is a leading killer and Director General Tedros Adhanom in April last year called for new solutions to get malaria response back on track.
While the country has embraced technology to advance research on malaria, in Zanzibar drones have been taken to the skies to spray paddy fields to kill mosquito pupa and larvae in order to fight malaria.
Evelesi Mikande, a mother of two from Kasungu, hopes that the drone research will guide the government on interventions that will save her household and the nation.
“Most of the times when I visit the hospital, it is about my children having malaria. I wish we had several interventions to deal with the mosquitoes,” he said.
Malawi Health Equity Network Executive Director, George Jobe, said the research is welcome as it addresses the source of malaria.
“If the solution can be found to deal with the breeding sites so that malaria is of the issue of the past, it is going to save a lot of Malawians as well as funds that the country spends to fight malaria,” he said
While there is progress in the fight against malaria in the country, the progress may not be convincing as the United Nations continues to implore countries to do more to combat the disease in order to achieve Sustainable Development Goal Three by 2030, which calls for efforts to ensure the well-being of all people.