Revolutionizing the Vaccine Cold Chain
Jul 02, 2013

In our discussions about vaccines it’s always exciting to hear about scientific advancements that are improving our prospects for preventing illness.  From vaccines that can help with addictions, to vaccines to prevent HIV.  From vaccines that are delivered via a patch, or those given through a mist up the nose.  Each day new scientific discoveries are made that may help improve the health of people all across the globe.
But when it comes to global vaccine distribution we’re still facing one stone cold reality.  In order for worldwide immunization programs to be successful, we must establish reliable distribution channels which include individuals trained to administer the vaccines, as well as efficient storage and handling systems that deliver the vaccines from the manufacturer to the people who need them.
Because all the vaccines in the world wouldn’t prevent a single illness if they weren’t properly handled before being administered.
Having recently returned from a visit to the desert, it’s easy to understand the challenges we face in maintaining a proper cold chain supply.  Fortunately, a revolutionary vaccine storage device, designed by Global Good, may be the solution we’ve been waiting for.

Image courtesy of Intellectual Ventures

Image courtesy of Intellectual Ventures

Global Good, which is a collaboration between the Gates Foundation and an innovative lab called Intellectual Ventures, has been working on a Passive Vaccine Storage Device in hopes of addressing the current cold chain challenges.  Their latest cooler-like design is capable of holding routine vaccinations for more than 200 children for up to 35 days.  Not only will it revolutionize the cold chain supply, but it has the potential to save millions of lives.  This new device, which has been in design for the past four years, has been described as a high-tech version of a coffee thermos.  But according to Wired,  there’s quite a lot more to it.

“… the device needed to be more than just an efficient cooler. It also needed structural integrity (or more specifically, it needed to be able to survive multiple falls off the back of a truck) and high-usability in the field.
The first prototypes fit into the efficient cooler category, keeping the vaccines fresh for up to 90 days, but they weren’t user friendly and made maintenance difficult. The development team decided that they had to sacrifice longevity in order to make the device easier to use. The sixth, and most current, prototype is the best yet. Each cooler-like device holds routine vaccinations for more than 200 children or a village with a population of 6,000. Though the device is created for maximum efficiency, it does have a few cool features: It logs GPS and temperature data, alerts users when temperatures begin to rise too much, and even has a little LED light when you open the lid.
Once stocked with ice (it takes 16 pounds, roughly the equivalent of two bags from 7-11), the vaccines are able to stay fresh for an average of 35 days.
A month might not seem like a long time, but on a continent like Africa (where Global Good does much of its work) a vaccine typically survives only five days before it spoils due to improper storage. This leaves millions of children without life-saving vaccines for preventable diseases. In order for vaccines to stay fresh, they need to be kept between 0-8 degrees Celsius (32-46 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s a hard thing to accomplish in warm, desert-like regions. And even harder if those the places are remote and without electricity. Intellectual Ventures had to figure out how to make a portable, sturdy and, most imperatively, reliable way to keep vaccines at that precise temperature.

For parents living in developed countries, we often take vaccine access for granted and many people are unfamiliar with the challenges of global vaccine distribution.  Nowadays in the U.S., children can get vaccinated at the doctor’s office, health department and sometimes, in the case of older children, even at the local pharmacy.  Yet even in the U.S., some providers still struggle with proper handling and storage of vaccines.
In fact, just last year a report revealed that some vaccine supplies were compromised by insufficient refrigeration.  While the vaccines were not deemed dangerous, there was some question as to whether the vaccines administered would still be effective.  The public response was one of surprise and concern, and the investigation ultimately led to a greater awareness regarding the importance of proper handling and storage.
So, if we can recognize that some providers in the U.S. are still struggling with these storage guidelines, one can imagine how challenging proper refrigeration must be to global vaccination workers.  Today’s revolutionary cooler design is sure to be an enormous asset to the global immunization initiatives we’re currently witnessing all around the world.   With advancements like this one, we hope to see an overall reduction in disease and a significant improvement in global health in the years to come.

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