An actor connects with a doctor, who gets an idea about phone towers. The result? A quarter-million children avoid serious diseases.
Here’s the background. Vaccines are fragile and need to be kept between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius or they become useless. Every year, 2.5 million kids die from treatable diseases like measles and polio because they live in areas without reliable electricity. No electricity, no refrigeration. No refrigeration, no vaccines.
Enter David Morse, the actor whose movies include “The Green Mile,” “The Hurt Locker” and “World War Z.” Morse learned of a Haitian boy who had died from diphtheria after the 2010 earthquake because there had been no power supply to deliver a viable vaccine.
Morse related the story of the boy’s death to his neighbor Harvey Rubin, an infectious-disease doctor at the University of Pennsylvania, and challenged him to do something about it.
Rubin found the answer in plain sight: mobile phone towers. By 2015, global mobile phone coverage is expected to be nearly universal. Already, there are more mobile phones than toothbrushes.
Each mobile tower generates more electricity than it needs, enough also to sustain a refrigeration unit to store vaccines.
To access that excess electricity, Rubin and his colleagues pioneered a nonprofit called Energize the Chain (EtC). In Zimbabwe, EtC installed 111 tower-driven refrigeration units to create the “cold chain.” As a result, 250,000 Zimbabwean children received vaccines in 2013.
EtC plans cold chains for Burundi, Lesotho, India and possibly other countries. Meanwhile, it’s even delivering vaccines via unmanned aerial vehicles.
Might EtC help in the fight against Ebola if a safe vaccine is developed? The group doesn’t work in West Africa today but, Rubin says, “In theory, this could be used to deliver an Ebola vaccine” to rural areas where refrigeration is not commonly available.