As the world rushes to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, we are looking forward to saving lives and resetting life to normal. Meanwhile, many African nations are also glancing back at past successes and challenges when faced with other diseases and outbreaks, hoping to learn and respond better and faster to this pandemic.
So far in terms of coronavirus cases and deaths, most countries in Africa have fared relatively well compared with the rest of the world. It could be their experience dealing with Ebola or AIDS or malaria, or that much of life occurs outdoors where it's harder for covid to spread, or it could be that their overall population is much younger than that of developed nations and therefore not as at risk for the more complicated, life-threatening symptoms of the disease.
Whatever the case, going forward, administering a vaccine worldwide is critical to protect everyone from this current strain of novel coronavirus. And in Sub-Saharan Africa this proves to be a serious challenge. But here again, the challenges of transporting and delivering temperature sensitive vaccines to widespread rural villages is not a foreign concept throughout Africa.
Cold Chain is the term used to describe the complicated journey a product takes from factory to family. Products that require refrigeration follow a strict supply chain to ensure they are delivered safely without temperature interruption. This may refer to how a farmer delivers produce from field to market to table or how medicine arrives to a patient from a laboratory half way around the world. In developing nations it's often that last mile that is crucial and often the most challenging.
A disease such as malaria requires quick action and when caught early enough can be cured through medicines given in multiple doses. Storing and delivering those medicines and vaccines are the current challenge. Malaria still kills nearly half a million people annually, most of them children in rural Africa. BfW partners, such as Transaid in Madagascar are committed to training healthcare workers to recognize the signs of malaria early so they can act quickly to save lives. Bicycles are used to deliver life-saving information, transport patients and carry coolers mounted on bike racks for medicines. These methods are helping to solve cold chain challenges and ultimately saving time and lives.
Cold chain breakdowns are not limited to slow commutes in the hot African sun. As mentioned in an earlier post, reliable electricity still plagues some regions of Africa such as Sierra Leone. In fact, only 10% of healthcare facilities in the poorest countries have reliable power and less than 5% have the refrigeration necessary to store medicines and vaccines at those facilities. When this cold chain is broken and vaccines are exposed to warmer temperatures the potency of the vaccine decreases to the point that it eventually becomes ineffective.
Fortunately recent studies have offered some solutions on how to deliver medicines faster and also how to rotate stock more effectively, increasing the shelf life of a vaccine. Solving, or at least improving, cold chain issues will ultimately help rebuild Sub-Saharan Africa post COVID-19. In addition to saving lives through effective vaccines and medicines, establishing a sustainable cold chain method could also help provide and store food to starving villages and create and promote jobs.