22 August 2013

Using the sun to chill vaccines in Fiji

By Karen Allen, UNICEF Pacific Representative
Women with their babies visiting Waidina Nursing station
© UNICEF Pacific/2013/MRoqica
Winding along roads bordered by lush, verdant fields and forest, we stopped to ask for directions twice. First, a friendly farmer took some time, out of politeness, to essentially tell us to "keep going straight and then turn left". After a while we checked again with a group of women carrying babies. The women laughed: "Turn your head and you will see it on your left." They were also on their way to see the nurse.

This was my first trip to the field as UNICEF Pacific’s new Representative.We were on our way to the Waidina Nursing Station in Fiji, together with partners from Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) and staff from the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) of the Fiji Ministry of Health.We wanted to see the EPI in action, and monitor installation and use of the newly introduced solar chilled refrigerator that has helped storage and delivery of vaccinations against childhood illnesses. This nursing station was one of the first in Fiji to install a solar chill refrigerator with support from Australian Aid and UNICEF.

The clinic is a simple, clean three rooms with basic essential furnishing, located on a well maintained and grassy compound.I spotted the solar chill panel right away on a tall pole, and was pleased to see it tilted in just the right direction to absorb maximum sun. We checked the wires between the panels and the refrigerator: all insulated and in good condition. Inside the clinic, we met the nurse manager, and had to apologize to a patient for the interruption as we needed to walk through the consultation area to get to the storage room. There we saw the solar chill refrigerator, full of vaccines, and in perfect condition.

There is only one nurse working at Waidina Nursing station; she has been working there for four years. As the lone nurse serving the people of Waidina and nearby areas, she is heavily relied upon. But that doesn’t dampen her smile or spirit. The nurse manager loves her work and this is probably the single biggest determining factor of a well-run clinic: people power! She always referred to "my people"' and when talking proudly about her vaccination targets, said: "I used to miss out on vaccinating some of my children, because when the road floods I could not get to the distribution hub. But with this refrigerator, I can make sure I am well stocked before the flood season, and all of my under-fives are now fully vaccinated." She pointed proudly to her manually kept monitoring chart on the wall.

Our visitors from Australian Aid based in Canberra asked her how she does her outreach work, and she laughed and said, "I just walk and walk, of course!"

The  clinic has many posters and other health messaging material on the walls and bulletin boards. I think people do not spend too much time looking at them after their first visit, but they add interest to the plain walls, and sometimes the nurse says she uses them when talking to a mother or father. 

As we left, with sincere appreciation, the nurse smiled, waved and then quickly turned to her waiting patients. I apologized to the mothers for keeping them waiting, and one said, “ We enjoyed your visit, too!” No wonder Fiji’s reputation is for friendly people.

It is important for UNICEF to make frequent field visits with our Ministry of Health colleagues. These visits keep us knowledgeable and on almost every visit, ideas come up for further improvements. For example on this visit, we noted that the solar panel would be better protected with a frame around it, and we began discussing how we could use the logistic capacity for cold chain and vaccines to extend to improving distribution of other essential drugs, which run out, according to the nurse.

There is always more that needs to be done. Seeing UNICEF’s work in action, however, recharges the batteries of good will and pushes us to be more effective and efficient so that we can create better results for children. Innovation is at the heart of our work, and with each success such as the solar chills, I know we are on the right track. I am looking forward to the journey ahead, filled—I’m sure—with more sight visits, smiles of the people we serve and hopefully, more success stories such as tha of the effective solar to chill vaccines for children.

As the UNICEF Pacific Representative, Dr. Karen Allen, Ph.D, is responsible for UNICEF programs in the Pacific. She is in charge of a complex operation that works in 14 Pacific countries across an expanse of 30 million square kilometers of Pacific Ocean, home to some 2 million people, 900,000 of whom are children under the age of 18.

Watch this space for more news on our work to make every Pacific child healthy, safe and resilient to climate change.
Solar chill panel on a tall pole, tilted in just the right direction to absorb maximum sun.
© UNICEF Pacific/2013/MRoqica
Pacific Immunisation Programme Achievements:

·         UNICEF continues to support 13 Pacific Island Countries purchase vaccines at affordable prices under the Vaccine Independence Initiative (VII).
·         Five PICs (Cook Islands, Palau, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu) have shown positive improvement in measles vaccination although coverage remained below 90%. 
·         The elimination of Hepatitis B was covered through the integration of Expanded Program on Immunisation (EPI) and Mother Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (MBFHI) in our three focus PICs – Kiribati, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. 
·         Due to a rubella outbreak, Solomon Islands added rubella vaccine to the Measles Supplementary Immunisation Activities with coverage of 101%, Vitamin A (91%) and deworming (85%).

UNICEF works in more than 190 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments. For more information about UNICEF and its work in the Pacific visit: http://www.unicefpacific.org

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