De-stigmatizing HIV/AIDS care through drone delivery

Government leaders, community organizers and the Elton John AIDS Foundation are introducing a powerful new tool in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Kenya.

In western Kenya, two major barriers prevent young people from seeking HIV and AIDS care.  

The first is logistics. In recent weeks, unusually severe flooding washed out roads, cutting off more than 200 health facilities in the area, according to Beryl Owuor, a clinical officer at a Level-4 hospital in Ndiru. These types of disruptions block access for patients, many of whom need continual care. 

Logistics is a challenge, Owuor adds, “But the biggest barrier here has been stigma.” 

Even though health clinics offer treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, young people – especially those who live in small communities — often avoid seeking care.

“People don’t want to go to a clinic that may be staffed by their friends, family members or neighbors,” explains Caleb Wanjala, Zipline’s community engagement lead in Kenya. “They don’t want members of their community to see them going to the Comprehensive Care Clinic, which provides all sorts of sexual and reproductive health services, because it’s associated with HIV-positive patients.” 

To solve both the logistics and the stigma problem, government leaders in Kenya have brought a new tool to the fight against HIV/AIDS. This March, officials in Kisumu County, Kenya launched a partnership between the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF) and Zipline to deliver reproductive health education, prevention and treatment supplies to places where young people gather. 

“Our autonomous drones deliver supplies directly to clinical staff stationed at football matches, cultural festivals and other events,” Wanjala says. “This means healthcare workers get what they need on demand, and young people access care on their own terms, and in an environment where they won’t be judged.”

Tracking the impact of drone delivery

The goal of this new, stigma-free approach is to bring down HIV/AIDS infection rates in Kenya. 

The country has a higher prevalence of HIV among people between 15 and 49 (3.7%) than the Africa Region (3.2%), according to the World Health Organization, and the global average (0.7%) according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Kenya, people 24 years-old or younger account for up to 60% of new infections for all sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.  

To address the crisis, Zipline and EJAF are focusing on young adults and adolescents. Already, the program has reached more than 30,000 young people with information about the disease. At community events, clinicians have distributed more than 11,000 Zipline-delivered condoms. Approximately 6,000 people have engaged in counseling or taken Zipline-delivered rapid tests. Over 400 have started either pre- or post-exposure prophylaxis and 12 have begun antiretroviral therapy. Most importantly, patients who start treatment through this program tend to return — 94% of people who’ve begun taking pre-exposure prophylaxis keep refilling their prescriptions, even after four months. That’s significantly higher than the typical retention rate which is, at best, 20% at one month. 

The program also makes it easy for people to get refills, decentralizing the process and bringing it out of the brick-and-mortar healthcare system. 

“Initially, we could serve very few youths in our hospital settings,” Owour says. “But given the new approach where we take the services to the people using drones, we have had up to 100 times the former visits.”

Since March, the partnership has grown from serving Kisumu County to delivering supplies to Homa Bay and Nyamira counties in western Kenya. Currently, other than HIV/AIDS prevention and management, the program includes breast and cervical cancer screening, family planning and vaccination campaigns against HPV and COVID-19. Soon, EJAF and Zipline will incorporate screening and treatment for tuberculosis. 

“Initially, we could serve very few youths in our hospital settings. But given the new approach where we take the services to the people using drones, we have had up to 100 times the former visits.”

“The most exciting aspect of drone delivery lies in its ability to revolutionize accessibility and inclusivity in healthcare,” says Joseph Ojuki, Executive Director of local nonprofit the Health and Economic Development Strategy Organization. “Drones bring a sense of immediacy to the delivery of critical reproductive health and HIV care supplies, ensuring that individuals, particularly young people, receive the care they need without unnecessary delays.”

Until now, young people in Kenya have faced logistical and cultural barriers to screening, treatment and education around HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Luckily, early evidence shows drone delivery can begin to address both, improving access to potentially lifesaving care. 

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