Finally, an effective medical use for drones.
There has been a lot of talk about how to make drones useful in the medical realm. One of the most-reported uses is the real-time transport of defibrillators to places where patients are having heart attacks. There is much talk of the promise of drones in disaster relief scenarios where blood products or drugs could be dropped into hot zones faster than emergency workers could arrive. Google’s Project Wing is working on this, for instance, and Matternet is working on delivering essential drugs in 3rd world remote locations.
But the US Fish and Wildlife Service has these ideas bested. Their plan: to use drones to fly across huge tracts of land in order to fire vaccine-coated M&Ms at prairie dogs in an attempt to keep the endangered black-footed ferret from extinction. I’m not actually sure what’s better: the drone concept or vaccine-coated M&Ms. Talk about a way to get kids to take their medicine, but I digress (a little). Here’s the deal:
Apparently prairie dogs are dying like crazy across Montana from sylvatic plague. Prairie dogs are the main food choice of the black-footed ferret and thus if the prairie dogs go, the ferrets go. At this point, there are only a few hundred such ferrets left in the wild.
The sylvatic plague can be treated with vaccine-laced peanut butter, applied to M&Ms (Hello? Reese’s new product department…). But here it is, the age-old startup conundrum: what’s the distribution model? Prairie dogs rarely go to Walgreens or even their doctor’s office, so getting them the vaccine is a challenge. With the B-2-B model ineffective, the U.S. government is going B-2-C (or perhaps B-2-Prairie Dog) and flying drones over thousands of acres using what they call a “glorified gumball machine” to shoot the medicated M&M’s out in all directions to create uniform distribution in the hopes that prairie dogs, out for a morning jog, will snarf these things up. Now granted, it’s not a highly targeted strike zone since theoretically any creature might snag those M&M’s (Hey, ET, get out of here! Those are for the prairie dogs!). But the theory is that broad enough dispersion will be enough to get the M&Ms, and thus the vaccine, to the right critters at the right time.
As I was reading this story, I could not help but think about strategies we could use to get vaccines to kids, and particularly I could not help but think about the HPV vaccine. A recent Harvard/UNC study said that at least a quarter of doctors acted or communicated in such a way that they discouraged adolescent patients (and their parents) about getting the vaccine, despite its safety and its high rate of efficacy in preventing HPV, which leads to several forms of cancer. That’s a freaking travesty, particularly since a primary reason for failing to recommend the vaccine was physician discomfort with discussing sexuality. Here are the findings:
- 27 percent of physicians across the country reported that they do not strongly endorse HPV vaccination
- 26 percent and 39 percent reported that they do not provide timely recommendations for vaccinating girls and boys, respectively.
- About 59 percent of the physicians recommended HPV vaccination more often for adolescents who they perceived to be at higher risk for getting an HPV infection, as opposed to recommending it routinely for all adolescents.
- Only 51 percent of physicians recommended same-day vaccination at the time of visit.
So who, aside from prairie dogs, loves M&Ms more than kids? No one. And peanut butter M&Ms? It’s a no brainer. Could we somehow figure a way to get the HPV vaccine onto M&M’s and drone drop them at junior high school campuses and Little League games? Scatter them at malls? Shoot them into bedrooms and family rooms where video games are played? Drop them at popular Pokemon Go geolocations? Yes, I’m being somewhat flip (who me?) but if the doctors, who are the single biggest influencer of whether the vaccine is given, aren’t going to do their part, we need to try something different.
Some of you science people may start by telling me that this particular vaccine doesn’t bind to peanut butter and M&Ms, but my question is: How do you know? Is there a way to try some new mode of delivery here other than 3-rounds of shots? And if you think it’s hard to get a kid to go for a three-shot series, as one does for HPV, you are right. But a three-bag of M&Ms series: piece of cake, er, candy. Most parents introduce their kids to the relative positive value of M&Ms during potty training so they have an innate affinity for them by the time they’re 12, I figure.
Time for HPV to go B-2-C (B-2-Tween?), and maybe this drone trend could make the deed, well, trendy. Drones are cool; drones delivering M&Ms are even cooler. Not getting cancer – the coolest. Maybe this should be a derivative project for Biden’s Moonshot.
Today more than 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, according the Centers for Disease Control, and about 14 million people become newly infected each year. The CDC states that HPV is so common that most sexually-active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives. And if it makes you squeamish to speak about the genital cancers caused by HPV, it gets worse: HPV is also a leading and fast growing cause of throat, tonsil and tongue cancers.
And here’s the thing, you know how the ferret’s are dependent on the prairie dogs in order to remain on earth? Well same thing goes for us: if we set our adolescent’s up to die from cancer when they don’t have to, we all die out. News flash: kids are, as science would suggest, the adults of the future. So we need to get more creative about how to get these vaccines to kids in a timely way and get our pediatricians more comfortable with talking about the birds and the bees, for goodness sake. Maybe drones can deliver these docs a tactical smack upside the head when they are at scientific conferences. So many new startup possibilities, so little time.