Malaria is a scourge in Africa, which is killing 500,000 people globally, every year. For those of us who were not born or raised in Africa, we know of it because of the huge charity campaigns to raise money to help prevent people from contracting it from mosquitoes. Dishing out treated mosquito nets to families in effected areas has been the main action aimed at malaria prevention, and it has had some success, but there are other innovations that are joining the “war on mosquitoes”. In some areas, such as in Zanzibar, there has been a drop in malaria prevalence from 40% to 1%, which is remarkable.
Over a year ago we also wrote a blog on this malaria war, with a number of technologies that are being used around Africa. From the SolarMal, which is a solar powered fan, which attracts in mosquitoes using human scent and kills them, Faso, a new type of soap which repels the unwanted creatures, or even incredible research by the IBM lab in Johannesburg helping understand potential resistance to drugs, there are countless projects and innovations to try and stamp out malaria by 2030.
Now, other technologies are joining the fight and taking it directly to the mosquitoes, instead of waiting for them to come. And what amazing technology is being used for this purpose? Drones! I know what you are thinking. Unmanned drones, flying with military precision, shooting down individual mosquitoes with tiny lazers. A space age fight, man vs mosquito! Well this was the image conjured up in my mind by the thought of a drone vs mosquito fight, but it is not quite so. But equally as cool!
Drones have incredible capabilities and offer solutions to various problems around the world and in Africa. The media talks a lot about the drones the military are flying over to either do reconnaissance or attack locations, but they are also able to plant trees, make deliveries, protect wild animals from poaching, and plot areas with accurate visuals.
It is the latter in which drones come prove useful in the the fight against malaria. Aberystwyth University, and the Zanzibar Malaria Elimination Programme are using drones over large areas, to map and create precise imagery of potential breeding spots of mosquitoes. These habitats are usually wetlands, where they go to lay their eggs after feeding, resting and finding a mate. It takes just 20 minutes to survey a 30 hectare rice paddy and an then an afternoon to analyse the information. This cuts down the time taken on foot to map the area drastically. And it is not a super dooper high tech drone used to do this, just one that is available for everyone to purchase.
Once these these water bodies have been located, it is then possible to treated the water and wipe out all the mosquito larvae, taking out an entire generation of mosquitoes of the ecosystem. The treatment have very low toxicity level and will cause few issues to the environment. There are also future plans to integrate the drone imagery technology into mobile phones, to easier direct teams on the ground to the affected areas, and eventually, having the drones themselves find the wetlands and disseminate the insecticide themselves.
If this is carried out effectively, there is a chance that Zanzibar, and other areas that fall under the scheme, could reduce the malaria rate to minuscule levels. But there must be some caution. There must be a contingency plan for whether the drone makes a mistake, especially if it is spreading the insecticide, and the potential damage to surrounding areas. Privacy of local communities, other aircraft, potential theft of drones, and even the effect drones may have on local bird life must be taken into consideration during usage.
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