Malawi is using drones to identify hotspots for cholera transmission in the capital, Lilongwe.

Drones help map areas that are densely populated and collect data for health workers to implement interventions against the spread of the disease.

The project is a joint initiative of the United Nations children’s agency, Unicef and the government.

Malawi is currently working to control a cholera outbreak in the country, said to have started with onset of the rainy season in November.

The drones will provide aerial imagery that will also pinpoint areas that urgently need public awareness campaigns.

The first drone mapping took place in Likuni area, one of the densely populated townships in Lilongwe.

Cholera is spread by ingesting fecal matter and causes acute watery diarrhoea.

The outbreak has been blamed on poor hygiene and use of contaminated water by residents.

Community leaders and residents participated in studying the maps and contributed to plans that can help improve things.

“It has revealed many things that we didn’t know about. As community leaders, we now have a huge task to ensure that our surroundings are clean and tidy. We have assured the organisers that we will take immediate action and within the next six months things will improve,” said community leader, Bernadetta Bernard.

“What I have seen is so encouraging. This is timely and we are happy about this technology because it will enable us to deal with specific cholera hotspots,” said Jestala Yasini, another community leader.

Drones are already being tested for commercial deliveries in countries like the United States and New Zealand.

Malawi’s drone corridor has been used before for humanitarian operations and development work.

As drones become smaller, more reliable and affordable, they are also increasingly being viewed as a component of development and humanitarian assistance.

Health workers say the maps created through drone imagery helped bring the scope of the crisis into perspective for many residents.

“We have been using chalk boards and walls to draw maps before, which can work but it does not necessarily give the same kind of contact that people have when they see something printed out like this. They are like oh! that is the marketplace. Oh! Look at that rubbish so they can relate to it better. So, it helps to get the people very animated and to say no we have got to do something about this; we have to do something about what we see because we can see it right in this picture here in front of us,” said Mark Hereward, the associate director, Data & Analytics at Unicef USA.

At least four people have died as a result of the outbreak and over 340 cases have been reported.

Cholera can be treated with oral hydration solutions and antibiotics but spreads rapidly and can kill within hours if no treatment is given.