For decades, a significant public health challenge in Africa has been the delivery of vaccines to rural locations where refrigeration is not readily available. Maintaining the so-called “cold chain” to keep vaccines viable has been a longstanding challenge to vaccination campaigns in such areas, and is one of the reasons that millions of people worldwide are undervaccinated and susceptible to preventable diseases. In addition to having no access to electricity, rural communities in Africa are often too remote to be reached using insulated coolers. As a result of the inability to vaccinate populations in these areas, thousands of people in Africa, many of whom were children or young adults, have been killed or permanently disabled in epidemics of meningitis A, particularly in the “meningitis belt,” a large area that stretches across the continent from Senegal to Ethiopia.
Recently, however, the Meningitis Vaccine Project, a collaboration between WHO and the international nonprofit organization PATH, announced the results of a 2012 study which showed that the meningitis vaccine MenAfriVac® could be stored for up to four days in temperatures up to up to 39°C (102.2°F) and still remain viable and effective. The 2012 study was conducted as part of a ten-day meningitis A vaccination campaign in Benin and identified significant potential for increasing the efficiency, coverage, and affordability of vaccines. In particular, the study could have a significant impact on the administration of vaccines by reducing the workloads of health workers, who spend significant amounts of time ensuring vaccines are kept cold and traveling to and from health centers with refrigeration to replenish vaccine supplies, and allowing those health workers to vaccinate more people in a shorter amount of time. A separate study published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization also found that the costs of administering the MenAfriVac® vaccine without keeping it cold could drop by 50 percent, because maintaining the cold chain requires investments such as freezers, ice packs, transportation fuel, and electricity fuel, among other things.
Whether this discovery translates into real benefits for the rural populations of Africa will depend, however, on whether individual countries will allow the use of the new storage protocol. Likewise, the potential for expanding the use of the new storage protocol to other vaccines will depend on whether manufacturers of those vaccines are willing to adopt the use of the new protocol with their products. However, if the new storage protocol can be widely deployed, it could have a significant impact on public health in Africa, which is critical factor in the development of the economies of the region.