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the fridge loses its cool
are preventing effective immunization in a large number of health centres. Phyllida
Brown finds out why, and hears about new approaches to keeping the cold chain
THERE may be nothing glamorous about a refrigerator.
But as anyone involved in immunization knows, it is one crucial tool in enabling
all children to receive the vaccines they need. Disturbingly, however, the performance
of the refrigerator in thousands of health centres in low-income countries is
so poor that regular effective immunization becomes impossible, some children
are left unprotected, and expensive vaccines may be wasted.
|Dont spoil it now: vaccines are
kept cool through the toughest journies, like this one, only to risk damage in
a clinic fridge|
a widespread problem with the management and the maintenance of the equipment,"
says Modibo Dicko, of WHOs African regional office in Harare.
Hard data are scanty, but individual reports from countries in Africa indicate
that up to one in four health centres cannot offer immunization regularly because
of refrigerator failure. These figures are probably representative of the region,
says John Lloyd, formerly head of the cold-chain section in the Expanded Programme
on Immunization at WHO, and now at the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health
Souleymane Kone, a logistics specialist
for WHO in Côte dIvoire, presented an assessment of overall vaccine
management in 13 African countries to the Technical Network for Logistics in Health
(TechNet) meeting in Delhi last August. The assessment found consistent problems
with the maintenance and supply of spare parts for fridges1.
African countries are not the only ones with a problem.
Refrigerator failures are also common in South Asia, where surveys and repair
programmes have been undertaken by IT Power India, a private consultancy specialising
in environmental and renewable energy solutions, based in Pondicherry. In one
of the most severe examples, in Bihar, about half of the cold chain equipment
was not working when it was surveyed in 1998 prior to a repair programme. A survey
this year in Nepal suggests there are widespread problems there too2.
Many refrigerator breakdowns are due to interruptions
in the supply of spare parts. Many of the parts are actually consumables such
as wicks, fuel and glasses for kerosene-run units which account for many of the
refrigerators used to store vaccines. A key reason for supply problems is weakness
in the management of the system, so that spare parts are not ordered efficiently,
stock is controlled poorly and then not delivered where it is needed. "Things
tend to fall apart," says Mr Lloyd, "and often there will be no automatic system
for reordering." Where spares are ordered in a haphazard fashion, they may end
up in the wrong place or being misused for other purposes. "You need a guaranteed
flow of spare parts," says Mr Lloyd. In principle this should be easy to achieve,
since the lifetime of the consumables is predictable.
problem, says Dr Dicko, is the training and employment of technicians. For most
countries, the Ministry of Health is officially responsible for cold chain maintenance,
yet government salaries are too low to retain technicians. Until the late 1990s,
WHO helped to train technicians in refrigerator maintenance for a number of African
countries health ministries. But that training programme was stopped after
it became clear that as many as half of the trainees left within two years of
qualification to work for the private sector. Some of them took their newly-supplied
toolkits, worth about $1000, away with them.
|Not a job for the fainthearted:
the daily reality of refrigerator maintenance can be hard work|
With a limited budget and a limited supply of government technicians, most health
districts cannot get repairs done when they need to. As a result, says Dr Dicko,
in the African countries where the problem has been studied, up to 70% of health
districts maintenance is done by private-sector technicians, some of whom
may not have the specific parts or skills needed. "It is easier to call the local
handyman and give him the job," says Dr Dicko. "But if they dont have the
right spare part, then the equipment remains out of action." More recently, private-sector
electricians have been invited to join courses, and have accounted for about half
Some governments and non-governmental
organizations are exploring the use of the private sector, not just for technicians,
but for the maintenance of the whole cold chain. Their reasoning is that a for-profit
company may have greater incentives than a public-sector body to ensure its equipment
is maintained and its staff retained. "When you walk into a shop to buy cola,
the fridge is working," says Mr Lloyd. In a privatised system, the company buys
the cold-chain equipment from the government and then takes rent in return for
a properly maintained system, paying its technicians and taking responsibility
for ordering parts, stock control and distribution.
Côte dIvoire, for example, has just entered a five-year contract in
which the entire cold chain is outsourced from the Ministry of Health to a private
company. If the experiment works well, other countries may follow, says Dr Dicko,
although he warns that some governments are resistant to the idea.
Another approach, now being advocated in Nepal by IT Powers Terry Hart,
is to encourage decentralization of cold-chain maintenance. When other aspects
of the health system are decentralized, maintenance may be best done by small
Management of the cold
chain within the country is key, but another problem is ensuring the procurement
and delivery of spares into the country in the first place. The majority of countries
have no manufacturing capacity for the spares themselves. UNICEF, long responsible
for the procurement of vaccines for the Expanded Programme on Immunization, has
also taken responsibility for procuring cold-chain spares. Mikko Lainejoki, of
UNICEF Supply Division in Copenhagen, says: "Whenever we supply a considerable
number of cold chain units we always emphasize the need to include spare parts
as a part of the initial purchase. The aim is to set up a system for regular routine
replenishment of spare parts."
However, for this
system to work properly, the government needs to ask UNICEF for enough spares
and the spares need to arrive on time. Neither is always the case.
Supplies stuck in port
Recently, some governments
have started procuring spare parts for cold chain equipment using their own budgetary
sources, rather than having them supplied by UNICEF. Usually, they continue to
buy through UNICEFs own procurement mechanism, as in the case of India.
UNICEF itself is exempt from paying import taxes, but if a government is paying
for its own spares, the Ministry of Health may have to pay import tax on them.
Funds for these taxes required because countries are attempting to broaden
their tax base are supposed to be covered by a line item in each countrys
health budget, or may in some countries eventually be reimbursed by the finance
ministry. But, whether through lack of funds, communication breakdown, or poor
management, tax payments sometimes fail to materialise, leaving supplies in port
and causing further delays in the delivery of equipment.
Mary Ann Carnell is technical director of a family health project in Madagascar
for John Snow Incorporated, an international health consultancy, and the US Agency
for International Development. The project works with the Madagascan Ministry
of Health. She says that spare parts for vaccine refrigerators have sat in port
there for up to two years in the recent past because of tax problems. The problems
are now being resolved, she says, but there are still severely frustrating delays
with the delivery and distribution of spares and the Ministry of Health is considering
several options, including tenders for domestic suppliers, and tenders by the
central medical store, a private non-profit organization, to ensure parts arrive
promptly in future.
Funding is another problem.
The cost of spares is high relative to the original refrigerators, says Lloyd.
Manufacturers tend to make a very small profit on the original goods, making their
profit instead on the sale of spares. With budgets stretched, governments find
it difficult to foot the bill. However, few donors have been willing to invest
in either spares or cold-chain maintenance, regarding these as recurrent rather
than capital costs and therefore governments responsibility.
A soluble problem
"The entire management of
the issue should be addressed," says Dr Dicko. "From forecasting the need for
equipment, to installing it, to making sure that the fuel is available, to making
sure that spare parts are always available, to making sure that temperature is
monitored regularly. All these things are crucial." And, he stresses, while maintenance
can be outsourced to the private sector, other important tasks, such as monitoring
performance, must still be taken care of by the public sector.
Ultimately, the refrigerator problem seems more soluble than many facing immunization
programmes. But it has remained neglected. With the advent of the new "dollars-per-dose"
generation of vaccines, donors will be keener than ever to see waste reduced,
and governments will want to ensure good vaccine management. "The Alliance partners
should be doing much more," says Dr Dicko. "They should start lobbying the donors
to focus on this issue."
data from 8 countries|
Total equipment ||Number non functioning ||%
477 ||70|| 15%|
|Burkina || 922 ||214||23%|
Malawi ||624|| 91||
747 ||101|| 14%|
| Uganda|| 1955|| 22 ||1%
1101 ||135 ||12%|
| Zimbabwe|| 1997 ||119
||8561 ||925 ||11%
Source: DANIDA 1988
Kone, S. Presentation to TechNet 2001, New Delhi. www.who.int/vaccines-access/Vaccines/Vaccine_Cold_Chain/technet/TC21_kone.pdf
2. Terry Hart, CEO, IT Power
India, personal communication. IT Power India is a subsidiary of IT Power Ltd.,
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