UBC-designed cooler combats vaccine spoilage in developing world


Many vaccines must be kept at temperatures between two to eight degrees Celsius or they may spoil, but storing them in that narrow range of temperatures can be a challenge in remote areas with limited refrigeration. A redesigned cooler developed at the University of British Columbia could help address this problem.>

The low-cost, low-tech cooler maintains vaccines at their optimal temperature for up to seven days in the field. It was designed by a team led by UBC associate professor of materials engineering Goran Fernlund in response to a request made by Lise Ellyin, country director for the Clinton Health Access Initiative, Inc. (CHAI) in Mozambique, in collaboration with the country’s Ministry of Health.

“Vaccines save hundreds of thousands of lives, but distribution in developing countries is a major global health problem,” said Fernlund. “When being delivered, vaccines might be put on the back of a motorcycle in a Styrofoam container, and they would often get too warm or even too cold because they’re right against an ice pack. When nurses inject the vaccine five or six days later, they have no way of knowing if it’s still effective.”

Coolers currently in use for vaccine distribution typically place vaccines in close contact with ice packs. The solution designed by the UBC team consists of several compartments within an insulated box, with the vaccines stored in a central storage compartment surrounded by a very thin layer of insulation.

Two sides of the central compartment are cooled by ice packs, and two sides are exposed to ambient temperatures through contact with the cooler’s exterior walls. By carefully designing the size and shape of the various cavities, temperatures in the vaccine storage compartment remain within the optimal range of two to eight degrees Celsius for up to seven days.

With a grant from CHAI, the cooler was successfully piloted in Mozambique, where it was used to safely transport vaccines into the field. Under testing, vaccines stayed below eight degrees Celsius in 43-degree heat, and above two degrees in colder 10-degree conditions.

"With this cold box, we have the first tool of its kind that can transport large quantities of vaccines safely to the health facilities and ultimately to the child,” said CHAI’s Ellyin. “It’s an example of the public-private partnerships that CHAI and Mozambique’s Ministry of Health engage in with institutions like UBC to improve the country’s health care system.”

CHAI works to strengthen the capabilities of governments and the private sector in developing countries to create and sustain high-quality health systems that can succeed without assistance.

The UBC team included Navid Zobeiry and Casey Keulen, research associates at UBC’s composites research network.

“In engineering, we love to think about complex problems and complex solutions. But vaccine distribution in low-resource settings needs a simple solution that needs only ice – not refrigeration or high-tech apps or Bluetooth or Wi-Fi,” said Zobeiry.

Fernlund, Zobeiry and Keulen are now openly sharing their design in the hopes of finding a manufacturer to build and distribute the coolers more widely.

View a Flickr photo gallery of the vaccine cooler.

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