Vaccines don’t just stop us from getting sick. They help keep us healthy, allowing us to take advantage of all the opportunities that life has to offer. For some, getting vaccinations is a simple trip to the doctor’s office. But for many in the world, it’s a lot harder to access vaccinations.
Victor is a health worker in the rural outskirts of Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) capital city. Delivering healthcare in communities affected by extreme poverty is hard enough, but without a working fridge to store and transport vaccines, it is even harder for Victor to vaccinate children who need it.
“We were only doing two or three vaccination sessions per month. We had to take the cooler back and forth to pick up the vaccines — a distance of 4 kilometres between here and the central office. The only mode of transport, the motorbike, cost CF2000 (US$1.25) for each journey. That cost us a lot.”
Struggling to keep cool
Vaccines need to be kept at stable, low temperatures to be effective. Cold-chain equipment such as fridges and cool boxes keep vaccines chilled. This hasn’t been an easy feat to achieve in the tropical climate of the DRC. Until now, health centres have used petrol-fuelled fridges to keep vaccines cool, but they are unreliable and often break down. Additionally, the fuel to power them is hard to get and transport.
DRC is a big country — approximately the size of Western Europe. Much of the nation is covered by dense forest without good roads, posing additional challenges to transporting vaccines and other supplies.
“The distances here are too large to supply some areas with vaccines,” said Didier Maundé, head of logistics for the DRC’s Expanded Programme of Immunisation (EPI). “Sometimes fuel was nowhere to be found either, or was too expensive. The cold-chain was at risk, and it was having a negative impact on vaccination.”
Despite some recent progress, the DRC has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world. 1 in 10 Congolese children are not surviving to see their fifth birthday.
The good news
In October 2018, the DRC’s Ministry of Health, working closely with partners — including Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance — launched a plan to immunise an additional 220,000 children.
Improved cold-chain equipment is crucial to the success of the Ministry’s plan. With more reliable equipment and better methods of transportation, children in the DRC are able to access life-saving vaccinations.
Almost 5,000 new solar-powered fridges have been delivered to the DRC with more on the way.
“This has reduced the cost for us and increased the number of [vaccination] sessions,” said Victor, who received his solar fridge last year. “I think we are at ten sessions per month now. We are very happy to have this.”
In addition to the new solar fridges, DRC is also creating Central Africa’s largest vaccination storage hub with the help of Gavi. The facility will be able to store more than 200 million vaccine doses and other medical supplies, plus transportation equipment to get them to health centres.
“The impact is visible,” said Didier Maundé. “More and more vaccines are available in the field. The cold chain is now reliable, and long distances are less of a problem.”
All of these innovations alone aren’t enough to stop epidemics in their tracks — like measles. That’s why we need to fully fund Gavi this June. This year, world leaders will have the opportunity to help Gavi keep up their incredible, life-saving and poverty-eradicating work in countries like the DRC.
Thank you to Gavi for providing this story. This blog was first published on 4 March 2019 and updated on 6 February 2020.