Activist state

Solar energy helps an Indian state to vaccinate | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW

Phoolwati Devi, 30, an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) from Vardara village in India’s northern state of Rajasthan, regretfully recalls how she had to throw away a whole batch of COVID vaccine vials as vaccines were wasted.

The village, with a population of nearly 7,000 people, is difficult to reach and is located about 340 kilometers (211 miles) from the state capital, Jaipur.

“It was the height of the second wave of COVID last year and people in the village needed vaccinations. But due to high temperatures and no electricity at the primary health center, I had to throw away the whole batch of doses,” Devi said. said.

Solar units for storing vaccines

Many villagers were distressed by the long and frequent power cuts in the area which prevented the installation of refrigeration facilities at the local health centre.

But it’s not just about COVID vaccines.

Lata Bhai, 27, was unable to receive the Tdap vaccine – which protects against tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough – during the third trimester of her pregnancy.

“I made several trips to the center but was told that the vaccine was not suitable for the midwife to administer. I was afraid for my child,” said Bhai, a mother of two.

ASHA workers leave with vaccines in Rajsamand district, Rajasthan state

However, a recent collaboration between the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Japanese government has brought relief to residents by setting up solar-powered refrigeration units to store vaccines.

So far, 27 such units have been created under the project, at a cost of around 9.3 million dollars (9.3 million euros).

The units do not require a battery to store power, can operate efficiently in rural areas with abundant sunshine, and are easy to install and maintain.

“Solar Direct Drive (SDD) refrigeration systems run on electricity supplied by solar power. They can keep vaccines at the proper temperature, without the need for electricity from a national grid. The energy is stored using different non-battery-based technologies,” said Anil Agarwal, a health specialist with UNICEF.

“We work to ensure that children receive timely and quality immunization services. Cold chain points play the most critical role in keeping vaccine quality intact and building trust in government services,” he added.

Reduce vaccine wastage

India’s universal immunization program is one of the largest public health interventions in the world, aiming to inoculate around 26 million infants and 29 million pregnant women every year. The vaccines administered under the program are all administered free of charge.

Although India is the world’s largest vaccine supplier, producing more than 60% of the world’s vaccines, the wastage rate is high.

Last year, for example, more than 6 million doses of COVID vaccine were wasted in the country. One of the main reasons for wastage was the lack of proper refrigeration facilities in health care centers, rendering injections unnecessary in a short time.

“While there are several challenges when it comes to the vaccine supply chain, one of the most important is ensuring that vaccines are stored and transported at the intended temperature. If vaccines are exposed to suboptimal temperatures, they lose their potency,” Vikas said. Bajpai, a public health expert, told DW.

A health worker storing vaccines in a solar-powered refrigeration unit

Solar powered units do not require a battery to store energy, can operate efficiently in rural areas with abundant sunshine, and are easy to install and maintain

High temperatures and power outages

In Rajasthan, scorching heat waves are the norm, with large swaths of the state recording high temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), particularly during the summer months.

Long and frequent power outages in parts of the state compound the problem by making it harder to maintain cold temperatures for vaccine storage.

“We always run for miles at a stretch in extreme temperatures throughout the day and then return to Rajsamand town to bring back the remaining vaccines to make sure there is no spoilage. We were running always against the clock,” said Durga Gadri, an ASHA worker.

“But now, with the installation of the solar-powered refrigeration systems, not only has the spoilage and waste of vaccines decreased, but people are coming on their own to get vaccinated,” Gadri pointed out.

Suresh Meena, the state reproductive and child health officer, shares a similar view.

“During the monsoon season, it rains heavily in this belt leading to frequent power cuts, leading to vaccine damage. But this year during the rainy season, we have seen a difference in health centers that have this equipment and a constant temperature was maintained and hardly any vaccine was wasted due to power outages,” Meena said.

UNICEF says it now intends to expand the program to provide solar-powered refrigeration units to public health care centers in other parts of the country.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru