In a historic drone flight, one-month-old Joy Nowai became the world’s first baby to receive a vaccine delivered via drone to the remote South Pacific country of Vanuatu. UNICEF, in conjunction with Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health and Australia-based Swoop Aero, orchestrated the successful flight this week. Swoop Aero, responsible for the actual operation, flew the vaccines in Styrofoam boxes with ice packs and a temperature logger to ensure the vaccines stayed at a certain temperature in the warm environment. During the first phase of trials, Swoop Aero landed the payloads within 2 meters (almost 7 feet) of the target after a 50-km (30 miles) flight over numerous islands and waypoints.

Vanuatu is made up of 80 remote and mountainous islands, and stretches across 1,300 kilometers (over 800 miles) with limited roads, making vaccine delivery particularly difficult and resulting in 20% of the country’s children to remain unvaccinated.

“Today’s small flight by drone is a big leap for global health,” said Henrietta H. Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. “With the world still struggling to immunize the hardest to reach children, drone technologies can be a game changer for bridging that last mile to reach every child,” she said.

“It’s extremely hard to carry ice boxes to keep the vaccines cool while walking across rivers, mountains, through the rain, across rocky ledges. I’ve relied on boats, which often get canceled due to bad weather,” said Miriam Nampil, the nurse who injected the world’s first drone-delivered vaccine, adding, “As the journey is often long and difficult, I can only go there once a month to vaccinate children. But now, with these drones, we can hope to reach many more children in the remotest areas of the island.”

In the long term, the Government of Vanuatu is interested in integrating the drone delivery of vaccines into their national immunization program and using drones more widely to distribute health supplies. The data from the trials will also be used to show how drones can be used commercially in similar settings around the world, UNICEF said.

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