Deliveries by drone: The technology making childbirth safer for refugees in Rwanda

Deliveries by drone: The technology making childbirth safer for refugees in Rwanda

Deliveries by drone: The technology making childbirth safer for refugees in Rwanda

Deliveries by drone: The technology making childbirth safer for refugees in Rwanda

Drones delivering blood have revolutionised medical care for women giving birth at Rwanda’s largest refugee camp who no longer need to travel for hours to receive specialist care, Save the Children said.

This life-saving initiative came after Save the Children renovated the medical centre at Mahama Refugee Camp in eastern Rwanda near the Tanzania border last year and partnered with US drone company Zipline to enable quick delivery of blood and other medical supplies.

The drones are used to replenish the health centre’s small blood bank, which was established as part of the 2023 revamp. In an emergency, the drones can deliver blood from a medical warehouse to the centre within half an hour. Each drone is fully autonomous and can travel at 70mph, carrying up to two 400ml blood bags in ice to keep the blood at the right temperature.  

Previously, all patients needing blood transfusions, including women suffering from postpartum hemorrhaging, were taken to Kirehe District Hospital about 24 miles (38 km) away, a journey which takes about two hours by road. Now referrals to Kirehe Hospital have halved in the last year, while births at the camp’s medical centre have doubled to 1,256 between April 2023 and March 2024 compared to 672 the previous year.

Anastase previously worked at Kirehe hospital and is now a midwife at Mahama’s medical centre, which is one of two facilities supporting more than 63,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the camp as well as people from local communities. The other facility provides basic treatment and facilities. Anastase said:  

“I worked at the district hospital in Kirehe, receiving mothers in need of the C-sections [from Mahama]. The mothers came with complications – haemorrhages, bleeding, loss of blood, uterine ruptures. Sometimes they fell into a coma. The transfer was very painful for them, very difficult. It was very hard to manage those cases because they had spent many hours on the road.” 

Since the 2023 renovation, Mahama’s medical centre can now perform surgeries, including caesareans. Beata*, 27, has been living at Mahama camp for the past two-and-a-half years, having fled conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  When Beata* gave birth to her first son Kevin*, she had to be taken to the hospital for a caesarean. She said: 

“I had no contractions, but I could feel that my baby was stressed. They transferred me to Kirehe [hospital] on the same day. The road was so rough. I thought that I might deliver on the way.” 

Supported by a team of trained midwives at the medical centre, Beata* gave birth by cesarean to her second child, a healthy boy called Beni* in Mahama. She said: 

“Travelling to Kirehe to deliver is stressful. There is no family to take care of you. You just stay with strangers. You are basically on your own. That’s why we are so happy about this, it’s comfortable to deliver our babies here.” 

San Francisco-based Zipline started delivering blood and medical products in Rwanda in 2016, as well as now working in Ghana, Nigeria, Cote’d’Ivoire, and Kenya. A study by researchers at the US’s Wharton School last year found Zipline’s deliveries had led to a 51% reduction in Rwanda of in-hospital maternal deaths due to postpartum hemorrhage.

Maggie Korde, Save the Children’s Country Director in Rwanda, said:   

“Access to maternal and newborn healthcare is an essential right for all women and mothers, including refugees, many of whom feel particularly vulnerable having already faced unthinkable trauma and displacement. With the renovated medical centre and the introduction of drones, people needing blood transfusions, including women experiencing post-partum hemorrhaging, can now be treated at Mahama Camp. These drones are quite simply lifesaving”.  

Save the Children has been providing midwife support and delivering health and nutrition services to refugees living in Mahama Refugee Camp since 2016, working with the Government of Rwanda, and the support of UNHCR, BPRM, UNFPA, Japan Embassy, and other partners.   

The child right’s organisation has been working in Rwanda since 1994 to promote a bright future for children, with experience working in all 30 districts of the country. The main areas of focus are education, child protection, child rights governance and health and nutrition in humanitarian and development contexts. 

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Save the Children.