Researchers have led the first global test to the use drone technology to treat tuberculosis (TB) in Madagascar


An international team of health-care investigators is piloting a new medical-delivery system that uses a “surgical strike” approach to solve pandemic problems.

Researchers from Western, Institut Pasteur de Madagascar, Stony Brook University (New York), and the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute have led the first global test to the use drone technology to support tuberculosis (TB) diagnosis and treatment in remote Madagascar.

With funding from Stop TB partnership, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Government of Canada, the team spent much of the last two years testing the capacity of drones to pick up patient samples from more than 50 villages for delivery to medical facilities to be tested.

Medication is then flown back for patients who test positive, again using drone technology.

A customized “pill box” delivers personalized medicine, which is digitally monitored to ensure prescriptions are properly followed.

This methodology holds the potential to leapfrog the extreme infrastructure challenges prevalent in remote places like the Vatovavy-Fitovinany region of Madagascar.

“In just a few hours, the drone makes a trip that is logistically and economically extremely difficult for many villagers, especially if they are sick,” explained Health Studies professor Elysée Nouvet, a medical anthropologist, who previously led global health projects in developing countries in Central America and West Africa.

Credit: University of Western Ontario
“These are villages that are walk-in only, with no ambulance service.

Travelling to the nearest hospital from a remote part of Madagascar can take days, and, if an individual is sick and those accompanying them have no family near the hospital, this trip can incur significant expense.”

Hand drawn map of the remote villages in Androrangavola, Madagascar. Credit: University of Western Ontario

Nouvet was invited to lead the cultural acceptability study of this potentially game-changing TB diagnosis and treatment program.

The protocol for this cultural acceptability study is outlined in the British Medical Journal.

Part of a global movement towards digital-health technology, remote monitoring and disease surveillance, Nouvet believes this approach must be further explored to figure out how best to properly navigate customs and any potential concerns of those living in remote communities.

There is also the question of sustainability and control over the technologies: Can such global programs be scaled up and owned at the local level?

Drones support remote village medical treatment
A drone used to deliver a ‘surgical strike’ in the Vatovavy-Fitovinany region of Madagascar. Credit: University of Western Ontario

“There are many pieces to this puzzle being figured out even as new drone-supported health programs are being introduced around the world,” Nouvet said.

“Who knows?

Maybe drone-delivered tests and treatments will become a new standard for northern First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities in Canada.

The job of the anthropologist in all this is to ensure technological optimism does not cloud questions that need to be asked about the social impact and acceptability of new technologies on those they are designed to supposedly support.”

DNA sequencing as a tool to fight TB: now accessible to developing countries, where it is needed most

In high-income countries, DNA sequencing of TB samples is increasingly being deployed for diagnosis and surveillance of the disease.

It delivers rich information about potential drug resistant bacteria, and can identify transmission between patients, with a level of precision and speed unachievable by the traditional methods.

However, due to the cost and complexity of DNA sequencing systems, these insights have so far remained out of reach of low- and middle-income countries, where TB has the greatest health impact.

The MinION increases DNA sequencing technology accessibility, due to its portability and cost.

Genomic surveillance provides opportunities to gain rich information about the pathogens that are affecting a population. The impact of access to DNA sequencing in Madagascar will not be limited to tackling TB.

The scientists from Institut Pasteur de Madagascar have also now sequenced a range of viruses and bacteria that are endemic to the country. Complete genomes of pathogens including Coronavirus (a variant of SARS and MERS-CoV), Respiratory Syncytial Virus (the common cold virus), carbapenemase-producing strains of Klebsiella pneumonia (a bacteria highly resistant to antibiotics) and Yersinia pestis (the bacteria responsible for plague) have been sequenced. Insights from these studies could help to bring future outbreaks of these diseases under control more quickly.

The training led by the Institut Pasteur Madagascar, Oxford University, EMBL-EBI and Stony Brook University, will be extended to healthcare facilities of the National TB Program of Madagascar.

As part of a larger study funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Academy of Medical Sciences the team of researchers aim to develop more capacity for DNA sequencing and use this tool prospectively to identify TB drug resistance, better understand the dynamics of TB transmission in Madagascar and evaluate impact on public health.

Drug resistant TB

Multidrug resistance or MDR-TB – defined by resistance to two of the major anti-TB drugs – isoniazid and rifampicin – is one of the major challenges in the fight against TB worldwide.

The most at risk patients are those who are immunodeficient or are in contact with other patients infected with MDR-TB and those who previously received anti-TB drugs, such as patients who failed therapy,  who have relapsed after completing treatment or who did not complete their full treatment course.

This emphasizes the need for robust and comprehensive drug susceptibility testing methods, patient to patient transmission early recognition and treatment adherence support.

As part of the End TB strategy, the TB community, led by the World Health Organization (WHO), established ambitious targets for TB control. These include the reduction of TB infections by 90% and of TB-related deaths by 95% in 2035.

The TB challenge in Madagascar

Madagascar has a population of approximately 25 million people of which a vast majority resides in rural and sometimes enclaved areas with poor access to healthcare.

In 2016, the reported incidence of TB was 237 cases per 100,000 inhabitants according to the WHO. 

Drug resistant strains circulate in the country and the National TB Program along with its partners have been driving new methods to rapidly identify and interrupt the spread of the disease in Madagascar. 

It is a priority to diagnose cases of MDR-TB at an early stage of disease to avoid further transmission in this context of poor access to care and high proximity of patients in enclaved communities. 

Genomic information – from DNA sequencing of the TB samples – can help scientists understand where the drug resistant strains are and how they are spreading within a population.  This epidemiological information promises to provide important insights for forming public health strategies.

Institut Pasteur Madagascar  

The Institut Pasteur from Madagascar (IPM) created in 1898, is a non-profit private foundation under the Ministry of Public Health from Madagascar and recognized of public utility by the Government of the Malagasy Republic.

This status gives IPM four main tasks: research activities directly applied to Malagasy national health priorities; Public health activities with its National Reference Centers bringing expertise to the Malagasy Ministry of Public health; Training and learning activities essential in the Malagasy context and service activities (Medical laboratory, Hygiene and food laboratory, international vaccine center).

The IPM is member of the Institut Pasteur International Network that regroups 33 research institutes from 5 continents around the world.

The IPM research projects are aligned with national priorities and meet the challenges of international health.

The focus of IPM’s fight against ID includes researching new ways of preventing and treating of chronic disease. As a direct result of these projects, the public health sector, in close partnership with the Ministry of Public Health in Madagascar, designed and developed ID surveillance which ensures quality diagnostics (IPM hosts 10 national or international (WHO) reference laboratories) or to intervene in the epidemic response.

Europe European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI)

The European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) is a global leader in the storage, analysis and dissemination of large biological datasets. We help scientists realise the potential of ‘big data’ by enhancing their ability to exploit complex information to make discoveries that benefit humankind.

We are at the forefront of computational biology research, with work spanning sequence analysis methods, multi-dimensional statistical analysis and data-driven biological discovery, from plant biology to mammalian development and disease.

We are part of EMBL and are located on the Wellcome Genome Campus, one of the world’s largest concentrations of scientific and technical expertise in genomics.


Oxford Nanopore

Oxford Nanopore has developed the world’s first and only nanopore DNA sequencer, the MinION.

The MinION is a portable, real-time, long-read, low-cost device that has been designed to bring easy biological analyses to anyone, whether in scientific research, education or a range of real-world applications such as disease/pathogen surveillance, environmental monitoring, food-chain surveillance, self-quantification or even microgravity biology. Commercially available since 2015, the MinION is in use by a thriving community of scientists in more than 70 countries, where it is enabling myriad applications within the traditional laboratory environment and in the field.

Immagine correlata

Nanopore sensing technology is fully scalable.

The GridION X5 is a desktop device that includes compute module and the ability to run up to five MinION Flow Cells.

The high-throughput, high-sample number PromethION is currently being released in the PromethION Early Access Programme (PEAP).

Oxford Nanopore is focused on making DNA-based analyses easy enough for any user and so we are working to simplify the sample preparation and data-analysis processes.

For sample preparation, this includes a 5–10 minute sample prep kit and VolTRAX , a rapid, programmable, automated USB sample preparation device designed to prepare DNA for addition to a nanopore sequencing device.

Stony Brook University – Global Health Institute

Stony Brook University Global Health Institute works with ministries of health and research institutions across the world to achieve public health impact through better use of data and innovative technologies.

In Madagascar, the institute has implemented a bi-directional drone-assisted delivery program to enhance TB care in enclaved communities.

This initiative serves as a model for other countries such as Nepal where drones are also newly used for TB care.

In partnership with the National TB Program, the Global Health Institute has also initiated the use of digital adherence monitoring technologies and produced a Malagasy video-based TB training curriculum for patients and community healthcare workers.

More recently, Stony Brook integrated this research consortium to support capacity building around TB DNA sequencing in Madagascar.

This new diagnostic tool aligns perfectly with the Institute’s previous work which already focuses on every aspects of the TB cascade of care.

More information: Elysée Nouvet et al. Perceptions of drones, digital adherence monitoring technologies and educational videos for tuberculosis control in remote Madagascar: a mixed-method study protocol, BMJ Open (2019). DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2018-028073

Journal information: British Medical Journal (BMJ) , BMJ Open
Provided by University of Western Ontario


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