WITH great success recorded in the past decade in controlling the spread of Malaria using multiple interventions, the government through its Ministry of Health has decided to deploy drones for spraying anti-larval chemicals in paddy fields, ponds and difficult to reach areas full of stagnant water.
Last Saturday, the spraying, arguably the first ever use of drones against malaria in Eastern and central African region, was launched in Cheju village famous for rice farming in the central district of Unguja Island. It was a formal launch of the programme beginning as a pilot project before extending to other areas including Pemba and small inhabited Islands.
According to Andy Hardy from the Aberystwyth University in Wales, his institution worked with the Zanzibar Malaria Elimination Programme ZMEP) to fly drones over known malaria hot spots in November 2017 as experiment. He said the mapping of malaria hotspot areas at that time showed good results.
Hardy mentioned that during the experiment two years ago, in 20 minutes, a single drone was able to survey a 30 hectare rice paddy. He said this imagery could be processed and analysed on the same afternoon to locate and map water bodies.
In the latest development, the pilot programme launched last week is being undertaken by the State University of Zanzibar (SUZA) in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, and support from China DJI technologies where the drones were made.
"This technology is a milestone in our campaign to eliminate Malaria. Our aim is to reach all areas still breeding sites for mosquitoes," Mr Hamad Rashid Mohamed- Minister for Health said at the launch of the anti-mosquito larvae spraying drones in Cheju.
He said possible sites for larvae which grow into mosquitoes causing malaria, still exist, adding to the number of people who contract the disease during their travel outside Zanzibar, "We have managed to keep the prevalence down at 0.2 (from 40 percent in the past two decades) percent, but we need to beat the 0.0 percent target in the near future."
The Minister said that the drone technique was important to speed up the spray exercise and reaching areas that may be difficult to access using traditional/manual way of spray. Normally it takes several weeks for many workers to cover the intended areas, yet there would be areas not reachable for manual spraying.
Mr Mohamed said "I thank SUZA and other key players in the drone programme. I urge residents to provide maximum cooperation to the sprayers so that Zanzibar is free of malaria in the near future. This is possible because our earlier interventions have given good results."
The interventions in the past include repeated Indoor Residual Spray (IRS) covering almost all houses in Unguja and Pemba Islands, manual spray in some ponds, improved diagnosis and treatment using combined medicines, distribution of free treated mosquito nets, and the ongoing public awareness on the importance keeping surroundings clean.
The executive director of Tanzania Flying labs, Mr Leka Tingatana said that his institute is working with experts in flying drone from SUZA to implement the new anti-malaria program by drones made in China. Two drones will be used, each with a capacity of spraying 50 hectares.
"We start here in Cheju village before moving to other areas," Tingatana said before enthusiastic gathering astonished to see the drones for the first time. The village is famous for rice growing, therefore, a land with moisture, favorable condition for mosquito breeding.
Mr Simai Mohamed Simai, Assistant Director-social welfare, Unguja Central district administrative Council said that malaria in the area is still a challenge as people here are fequentlt diagnosed malaria positive.
He said that between July and September this year, 262 out of 4223 diagnosed were malaria positive of which 64 percent of the people found with malaria had travelled outside Zanzibar, "As we encouraged people at home to take preventive measures like using mosquito nets, those travelling should do the same."
Simai said the data indicates that Jumbi, Kiboje, Miwani Ndijani-msemeni, Jendele, Mitakawani, Chwaka, Uzi-ngambwa, Chuchumile, Bungi and Tunguu are other surrounding villages still with common cases of malaria.
Health experts say that mapping aquatic malaria habitats is important because in shallow sunlit watermosquito larvae grows to adult mosquitoes and then in search of a blood for its meal from a human infected with malaria, it will become a vector for the disease and continue its deadly transmission cycle.
Zanzibar like the Tanzania mainland, have been fighting for long, but the interventions have bared fruits in recent years. Globally, the disease infects over 200 million people annually and is responsible for killing approximately 500,000 people each year.
However, the ongoing anti-malaria campaign globally is bringing down malaria. The government with support from multiple development partners such as the US, WHO, Global Fund, Italy, and China among other have spent billions of Tanzania shillings in the anti-malaria campaign in Zanzibar, but the budget for the malaria Drone project was not revealed.
Mr Hardy from the Aberystwyth University in Wales says despite advantages of drones, operators need to be mindful of the negative side of drones: invasion of privacy; collisions with aircraft and birdlife; their association with warfare. These are very real concerns for the public.
He also reminded that it important to work alongside leaders in the villages to show them the drones are safe, and explain exactly what we plan to use them for, to reduce wrong perceptions and rumors about the drones.
He said working close to encourages them to understand how drones and similar technologies, used alongside traditional indoor-based interventions, can really help to make malaria elimination in their community a reality.
With malaria free Zanzibar, it is anticipated more tourists and investors will come to the country already famous as a tourist destination. The country relies on tourism industry and services as its main source of income to run the government.