UNICEF Supply Division: Getting COVID-19 vaccines to West and Central Africa

Copenhagen, 19 January 2021

In western Côte d’Ivoire, 2-month-old Djibril is in hospital for an important reason: he’s receiving a routine vaccination that is vital for his health. It’s April 2020, and while COVID-19 has been circulating for two months in the country, his mother insisted on bringing him in. “I don’t want my baby to become sick from another disease. Besides, in the hospital they do the birth registration too.”

Djibril is one of 25 million children across the 24 countries of West and Central Africa that receive routine vaccinations annually to protect against diseases such as measles, polio and diphtheria. Without them, it leaves children – and entire communities – exposed to the risk of infection, threatening their long-term health, and frequently their lives.

Transporting vaccines

As the largest single vaccine buyer in the world, UNICEF has decades of experience organising the delivery of vaccines for routine immunisations and disease outbreaks such as the Ebola virus. This is why UNICEF, in collaboration with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), is leading efforts to procure and supply approved COVID-19 vaccines for 92 low- and lower middle-income countries around the world, of which one-quarter are in West and Central Africa.

But getting these vaccines from manufacturers to countries is a mammoth task. It not only requires that airlines have enough space to transport them, but also that the vaccines are kept at a stable, cold temperature from the moment they leave the manufacturer until they are administered. Ensuring the facilities needed for this are in place – known as the ‘cold chain’ – is a critical part of UNICEF’s current support to governments before COVID-19 vaccines arrive.

Solar powered vaccine storage

“West and Central Africa is one of the most complex environments you will find,” says Jean-Cedric Meeus, UNICEF’s Chief of Supply for the region. “We are dealing with the challenge of delivering COVID-19 vaccines to major cities, but also to extremely remote villages. We are preparing for all scenarios.”

Since 2018, UNICEF – working alongside governments and with support from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance – began buying and installing solar-powered fridges to store vaccines throughout the region. The idea would be a gamechanger for regional and district health workers who often struggle to carry out routine immunisations for children in places with unreliable electricity and cold storage facilities.

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