Vaccines are an invaluable tool in places where there is little health care like remote communities in Kenya or India. A small requirement to having these vaccines available is that they must be kept from spoiling in a cool environment. To these remote communities with inconsistent power, this simple requirement may be difficult to achieve. As power outages are a common occurrence, Harvey Rubin of the University of Pennsylvania and Alice Conant of Mudd College, have proposed using new rapidly expanding infrastructure from cell phone companies to help with the task of keeping vaccines cool.
In an article titled "‘off-grid’ phone towers could save lives”, Rubin and Conant point out that many new cell phone towers put up by lucrative businesses are much more reliable as they are equipped with generators and solar panels to operate. They suggested that perhaps the excess power not used by the cell phone tower could be used to power refrigerators to maintain vaccines that prevent diseases like polio, measles and diphtheria.
What was once just a proposal is now resulting in many different projects throughout many developing countries. One such project is found in Zimbabwe where 10 church-run hospitals are teaming up with Econet Wireless to care for their invaluable vaccines.
Econet’s Chief Technology Officer, Bernard Fernandes, started a non-profit organization called Energize the Chain which is supplying the churches with state of the art refrigerators made by True Energy that can stay cool for 10 days without power in environmental temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius. These fridges constantly monitor temperatures inside and outside them, and they can send this information from the cell phone towers to the different people monitoring them. Furthermore, vaccines are labeled with temperature sensitive labels that change colors when exposed to high temperatures.
Energize the Chain is starting other projects in Kenya and India are also underway to make use of excess cell phone tower power. The Kenya, the local federal government and the U.S. government are installing 10 more cooling stations. In India, Energize the Chain is hoping to join forces with Vodafone Foundation and the Karuna Trust to start more experimental trials.
These trials will be compared to control trials to prove whether or not the refrigeration stations powered by cell phone towers decrease spoilage. If successful we may se the rise of a new model of vaccine maintenance in the developing world.
For the curious, an average cell-phone tower doles out 10-20W of power per carrier. However, distance from the tower returns diminishing results. Perhaps they should look into FM radio harvesting; those towers put out 10KW+.