What is a ‘cold chain’ and can it help fight Ebola?

CellTower (Energize the Chain)
Mobile phone towers across Zimbabwe power refrigeration units that store vaccines in remote areas. (Energize the Chain)

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.

Boy and grandfather looking at mobile phone (Energize the Chain)
Energize the Chain has expanded its work to India. Five health centers currently serve 15,000 children. (Energize the Chain)

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.

Girl getting vaccinated (Energize the Chain)
A girl gets vaccinated, thanks to the “cold chain.” (Energize the Chain)

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.

The U.S. is committed to improving global health. During the past five years, President Obama’s Global Health Initiative invested $50 billion in health programs, some focused on child immunizations.