HARTFORD, Connecticut — Across the world, refrigerators are being used to improve vaccine access and save lives, by keeping temperature-sensitive vaccines effective for children in Africa. Rotavirus and Pneumococcal, vaccines for preventing diarrhea and pneumonia (the leading causes of child deaths), must be kept between two and eight degrees centigrade. These vaccines are particularly crucial in parts of Africa where immediate medical attention is hard to access, and it is only through new innovations in refrigeration that children in the region are gaining access to them.
For a long time, one of the biggest healthcare challenges to improve vaccine access in Africa was transporting vaccines to remote locations. The searing heat and the lack of proper roads made it impossible for vaccines to be transported to where they were needed most. In addition, with most parts of the continent sorely lacking in electricity, existing refrigerators were rendered ineffective. In sub-Saharan Africa, 600 million people — or 70 percent of the population — do not have electricity. As a consequence, even health centers do not have a sufficient supply for everyone, so some new mothers will go home without tuberculosis and polio vaccines for their newborns.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has the goal of preventing more than 11 million deaths, 3.9 million disabilities, and 264 million illnesses by 2020 through high, equitable and sustainable vaccine coverage and support for polio eradication. This ambition rests on ensuring that vital vaccines for children in Africa reach them. According to its findings, “one in five children worldwide is not fully protected with even the most basic vaccines. As a result, an estimated 1.5 million children die each year — one every 20 seconds — from vaccine-preventable diseases such as diarrhea and pneumonia.”
Now, innovations like solar-powered refrigeration are becoming a critical part of health supply chains, ferrying vaccines safely from the manufacturer to health clinics. Aid organizations like Community Health Africa: a Poverty Solution (CHAPS) have been working to develop a liner capable of a nine-hour holdover time in 43-degrees-Celsius heat – holdover is the time that the vaccines temperature can be maintained after power has been shut off.
In Tanzania, the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) is piloting a new storage device — a Solar Direct Drive (SDD) Fridge which is also water-lined and therefore helps better control the temperature. The reliable stream of electricity combined with the improved lining means that the temperature stays more constant. The SDD uses remote monitoring to track temperature changes. A digital thermometer on the outside takes the temperature in real-time, and when the temperature gets too hot or too cold, the SDD alerts government officials and technicians via email and text. These notifications alert staff of any issues so they can safeguard the vaccines before they are damaged, or discard any vaccines that have become ineffective.
At the First Ministerial Conference on Immunization on February 24-25 of 2016 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, policymakers, immunization experts and stakeholders in the area of health acknowledged the need to set up appropriate supply chains to deploy the latest refrigeration technologies. With the help of organizations such as CHAPS and CHAI, the hope is that this technology will improve vaccine access, spread quickly and save lives.
– Mallika Khanna