Solar Energy for Vaccine Storage in Mwingi
Public healthcare providers are expanding the use of solar energy to power safe vaccine refrigeration in remote health centres in Mwingi, Kitui County. The Expanded Programme on Immunisation of the World Health Organisation (WHO/EPI) recommends the use of solar energy technology to ensure good quality and safe vaccine refrigeration in remote health centers.
Speaking to Kenya News Agency, Mwingi Level 4 Hospital Medical Officer of Health Dr Boniface Kimuyu said that solar energy continues to play a leading role as an alternative energy source for the vaccine Cold Chain in remote rural health centres out of the electricity grid coverage. Although Kenya’s semi-arid and arid lands are bestowed with abundant sunlight and poor electricity grid coverage, Mwingi Sub-County is making use of solar power in the health sector. “Electricity should be a priority for public health,” says Dr Maria Neira, director of the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva adding that “WHO and its partners are now working to foster awareness of this neglected need.” According to a WHO study published in Global Health: Science and Practice in 2013, about one in four health facilities in 11 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have no access to electricity and most facilities that do have access have an unreliable supply. Dr Kimuyu admits that without accessible electric power, peripheral and far flung health facilities in Mwingi Sub-County cannot run equipment such as vaccine refrigerators or use many of the most basic, lifesaving medical devices. “Rural health clinics in the vast and sparsely populated Mwingi Sub-County are the last link in a fragile lifeline of support. The shortest distance between the facilities is in the range of 20 to 40 kilometres apart coupled with rough terrain and poor transport,” he observed. Dr Kimuyu asserts that solar energy plays an important role in improving health energy infrastructure when integrated with primary health care programmes, which are essential to the improvement of child survival and the overall quality of the human condition. Martin Njiru, Mwingi Sub-County Public Health Officer, noted that immunisation programmes depend upon reliable refrigeration to preserve vaccines to prevent or eradicate dangerous diseases including Polio, Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis, Tuberculosis, Measles, Yellow Fever and Hepatitis B. “The Cold Chain is a system which attempts to keep vaccines at proper temperatures as they are distributed from the manufacturer to the rural health centres where they are administered,” said Njiru. The Public Health Officer disclosed that at the Sub-County and rural health centers vaccines are stored for up to one month and require a stable temperature between 0°C (32°F) and 8°C (46°F). “Once the vaccines have been exposed to temperatures outside this range, potency is forever lost,” said the public health officer adding that far flung and remote placed health clinics in this logistical supply chain must also be able to freeze ice packets to carry the vaccines in coolers to surrounding sites served by the health clinic. In Mwingi, there are eleven health facilities served with the solar fridges in Musukini, Mathyakani, Kanyonga, Kanzui, Muono, Kalanga, Yatwa, Ivuusya, Wingemi, Muuyuni and Lundi.These health centres have a “solar suitcase”, a portable kit containing a small photovoltaic (PV) solar panel, battery charger and outlets for energy-efficient LED (light-emitting diode) lights. Dr Kimuyu observed that as for the remote health facilities that need a ready on-site energy source, adding solar energy to the mix may offer significant gains. “A hybrid electricity system including both PV solar energy and a generator, for instance, can improve reliability and sharply reduce fuel use and, thus, operating costs,” added the MoH. The use of solar refrigeration has enabled national immunisation programmes to expand their outreach to remote populations in Mwingi Sub-County and to ensure that good quality vaccines are delivered to the children and their mothers. Dr Kimuyu disclosed that although recurrent costs are indeed low, they exist despite the huge cost of installation. Batteries must be replaced after a number of years like five years in the best cases and sometimes at a shorter interval, depending on their quality and their match with the whole system. The Medical Officer noted that if nothing is done at county level to plan and budget for the replacement of these batteries, then an excellent technology will become useless and increase the number of “dead” systems lying around in remote areas. Caption A model solar fridge used to store vaccines at the right temperature at health facilities. Photo: By Yobesh Onwong’a