Rethinking Healthcare

Vaccines stay cool with cellphone tower's surplus power

Vaccines stay cool with cellphone tower's surplus power

Posting in Energy

Hospitals in remote Zimbabwe, where the power can be unreliable, are making sure their vaccines don't spoil during power failures and generator outages.

For a hospital serving a remote community in Zimbabwe’s Masvingo province, if the power fails and the backup generator is offline, staff must rush out of their homes in the middle of the night and drive several miles to stash their vaccine stock in a fridge in the provincial capital.

Now, a pilot project hopes to solve the obstacles by using surplus electricity from cellphone towers to run fridges that chill those perishable vaccines. New Scientist reports.

The idea was suggested by Harvey Rubin of the University of Pennsylvania in 2010, and now it’s being tried out at 10 church-run hospitals across Zimbabwe – with the backing of Econet Wireless, a cellphone provider based in Johannesburg.

To keep their towers working reliably in areas where the power often fails (or the masts are off the grid), cellphone firms have installed generators and sometimes solar panels.

These then, can be used to help maintain the cold chain, the weakest link in efforts to immunize children against diseases like polio, measles, and diphtheria.

  • To be sure that power glitches wouldn't cause problems, they’re using fridges by UK-based True Energy, which can keep cool for 10 days without power, even if temperatures reach just above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • The fridges are either housed in a shelter beneath the cellphone tower, or in the hospital if it’s nearby.
  • The fridges have sensors to monitor temperature inside and out, and to detect when the door is opened.
  • This data is relayed back via the cellphone network, allowing Econet and partners to know immediately if anything goes wrong.

In India, Rubin's non-profit organization, Energize the Chain, is in talks about a controlled experiment to confirm if sites powered by cellphone towers have less vaccine spoilage. (Vials of vaccine can be fitted with labels that darken with exposure to heat.) Meanwhile in Kenya, Energize the Chain hopes to launch a pilot project involving 10 or more sites, with the backing of both the Kenyan and US governments.

[Via New Scientist]

Image by .Larry Page via Flickr

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure