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Mobile Phone Towers: The Answer to Vaccine Availability
December 19, 2014

Tower rises, against bright blue sky
Solar panels at this Zimbabwe cell tower generate excess energy to maintain a cold chain for vaccines. Photo courtesy: Energize the Chain

Vaccines are among the most effective ways of saving lives. A concerted campaign in recent years has vastly expanded the numbers of world children who receive vaccines. The Gavi Alliance estimates that vaccines have saved 6 million children who would have died from diseases that killed so many millions in centuries before.

Still, delivering vaccines to remote areas remains a persistent problem. Vaccines require what’s called the “cold chain” — a means of transport and storage of vaccine that keeps the material between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius from manufacture to administration. Without that, vaccines become useless.

Thousands of volunteers over the decades have trudged down forest paths, forded streams and found remote villages to deliver vaccines in small coolers. A group called Energize the Chain (EtC) is finding a better way.

The lightning-fast adoption of mobile phones in the developing world has led to a booming crop of the towers that bounce the signal from caller-to-caller. The EtC team figured out that each phone tower generates more electricity than it needs, enough to sustain a refrigeration unit to store vaccines.

To tap that excess electricity, EtC installed 111 tower-driven refrigeration units to maintain “cold chain” conditions for vaccines headed to remote or rural areas. EtC made use of the newly created cold chain to insure that 250,000 Zimbabwean children, regardless of where they lived, received vaccines in 2013.

The EtC mission is to “eradicate vaccine-preventable deaths worldwide by making effective vaccines as accessible as global cell phone coverage.” This method also reduces waste of vaccines and will “solve the missing link in the delivery of vaccines to the world’s poorest,” EtC pledges.

EtC plans to establish vaccine cold chains for Burundi, Lesotho, India and possibly other countries in the near future.

The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author or interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government.