Drones Combat Malaria

A new project in Malawi is geared to fight against one of Africa’s most ravaging diseases, using a subtle blend of sophisticated and simple “bucket and spade” science

The drone creates plenty of noise and mayhem as it gets elevated into the air to capture aerial images of the reservoir underneath. The visuals and sound generated by this astounding piece of technology stirs up the curiosity among the local inhabitants as they travel in and around the town of Kasungu in central Malawi. In only a few moments, a small crowd of people looking intrigued by this compact sized beast is formed.

Patrick Kalonde is traversing through grass and mud just a few yards away. He is an intern at Unicef working on humanitarian uses of drones. He has a plastic container with him along with a ladle and is in search for mosquito larvae. This is an incredibly contrasting technique that consists of cutting edge technology and bucket and spade science. However, both the components of this technique are integral to the success of this project which aims to map the breeding grounds of mosquitoes.

The scourge of Malaria ravages Central Africa

Kasungu is a small town situated at the base of the stunning Kasungu Mountain. It is the first town in Central Africa where humanitarian drone testing corridor is being set up. It was established by Unicef in 2017 with collaboration with the Government of Malawi, the corridor is 80Km wide area for flying and testing drones to assist the local people.

The drones are being employed by Unicef to promote the notion that they can be used for good purposes with an intention to shrug off all the violence associated with them. In the absence of this program, initiating our project would have been quite a complicated affair. A drone cannot be sent whizzing into the sky wherever one may like, so we were absolutely ecstatic when they acceded to our request for setting up the corridor.

So far, projects have been started in the corridor to deliver supplies to areas hit by natural calamities, to map cholera outbreaks and to build capacities of the Malawian youth to build and operate drones. We are in Kasungu to combat malaria.

Fight against malaria

This century has seen a significant drop in the death rate caused by malaria, yet the disease has been devastating in Central Africa. In Malawi, one in every four children under the age of five test positive for the disease. Free mosquito nets are being provided to the locals in a bid to fight this scourge but the end to this menace still looks beyond sight.

You must be perplexed with all that talk of reservoirs and drones. Malaria and water are correlated as you may recall. Once a malaria-carrying female Anopheles mosquito sucks blood from an unsuspecting human or animal host, just after a few days it searches for a body of water in which to lay her eggs. She is helped immensely by the long rainy season, which spans from November till April, as pools or puddles of water are not hard to find. Mosquitoes flourish in the rainy season which is subsequently followed by a disastrous outbreak of malaria.

As the rains go away, the breeding sites are quite hard to find; thereby giving rise to questions about the whereabouts of mosquitoes during the dry season.

The mapping of mosquito breeding sites could help us figure out the areas sensitive to the transmission of malaria. It could also assist us in decreasing the mosquito count in water through environmental management. By preventing the mosquitoes from breeding in the hard-to-find sites during the dry season, the cases of malaria among the local population could be significantly reduced.

Mapping of mosquito breeding sites

There are numerous reservoirs used to supply water to the local population in the Kasungu district. The water levels had receded in the reservoirs during the summers when we arrived in the area. The only thing left was a shallow and muddy coastline with lots of vegetation around. These are the perfect conditions for Anopheles mosquitoes to breed. So, we focused our attention to this neck of the woods as there has been significant research associating reservoirs and enhanced malaria transmission.

Sampling of mosquito larvae

It does not take a lot of time before Patrick submerges a ladle into the edge of the muddy water and collect a few mosquito larvae. This is the correct place. Early in the day, even during the winters, it is quite hot in Malawi. So, the sampling work of mosquitoes can be quite taxing. This, however, is a task that is regularly carried out by national programs to support malaria control. We aim to determine if drones can help us make this task become easier and more affordable.

Data processing

In the evening, night begins to creep in and the temperatures plummet, we begin to process all the data collected by drones to see if it can be used to spot potential breeding sites. This can be quite complicated and not to mention expensive depending on the software that is being employed. However, we are aware of the fact that we won’t be undertaking this assessment in the future. It is a task that will be undertaken by the local malaria control officers so it needs to be easy-to-comprehend along with being accurate.

A week into our research and we have come across some stunning images of Kangusu reservoirs. We traversed through the muddy coastline and found tons of mosquito larvae on the way. The next step is to put all the data collected through insect surveys conducted on the ground and drone imagery. The initial results portray that it is possible to spot the exact breeding sites of anopheles mosquitoes.

Locals want an end to malaria

As another lovely and yet tiring day draws to a close, the drone begins to land and Patrick makes his way back to the car with his small tub of reservoir water. The small crowd of people gathered just a few yards away comes closer to have a look and Patrick begins to share with them the details of how drones are being used to find “udzuzu” (mosquito in local language).

As people get more and more engaged, they begin to share their own experiences with malaria and that they are quite optimistic that our efforts will reap rich dividends in putting an end to this menace. We hope that we will be able to make a difference.

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