U helps get vaccines to rural Africa

In Tanzania, the current method is costly, unreliable and cumbersome.

Yasin Mohamud

A group of University of Minnesota researchers have joined forces to combat problems in current vaccine delivery systems in rural Africa.

Researchers from the NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise, a program operating under the University Institute on the Environment, are focusing on Tanzania and the current methods of vaccinating children in the country, which is costly and unreliable.

Currently, children in Tanzania get vaccinated through campaign-style vaccination periods, when nonprofit organizations raise enough money to transport large batches of vaccine to a village.

But those campaigns are irregular and can leave large chunks of populations in villages unvaccinated, allowing for disease outbreaks.

NorthStar has examined the problem and other challenges in supply, cost, logistics and human resources of vaccination delivery in rural Northern Tanzania and designed a new delivery system that they have dubbed âÄúSmart Delivery.âÄù

The system will use cellphones and a virtual group of friends or delivery agents to make sure small batches of vaccines continually reach the most rural areas of Tanzania when large trucks fail to do so because of bad roads and high economic costs.

The delivery agents âÄî who have extra room in their backpack, on their bike, in their trunk or elsewhere for transporting a small cooler of vaccines âÄî will signal to the system their current location and travel plans.

âÄúIn East Africa, the transportation costs for these vaccines are three to six times more costly than anywhere else in the world,âÄù said Tim Smith, a resident fellow and director of the NorthStar Initiative.

He said putting that cost on a product that is usually donated can make it very difficult to get the vaccines out to the people who need them the most.

With the Smart Delivery system, Smith said they are trying to find a way to get around the campaign-style vaccinations and to provide a better quality of life for the people of the region by delivering all sorts of goods they need in a more cost-effective manner.

âÄúWe know the transportation system in this region will not get better within the next 20 years,âÄù Smith said. âÄúSo our system intends to provide an alternative to the large trucks that are used to deliver them at the moment.âÄù

Smith and his team have implemented crowd funding through Rocket Hub to raise money and awareness for it.

âÄúThe project is not contingent on the crowd funding. We just thought it would be a great way to raise awareness and money,âÄù Smith said.

They have also put in a grant proposal to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for $100,000. The money will be used to get the project started if the proposal is approved.

While they are looking at several different options for funding, NorthStar has already invested $150,000 to $200,000 on developing the model for the project and moving it forward.

Jennifer Schmitt, a post-doctorate research fellow with NorthStar, said she believes the project can do a lot of good in Tanzania and in other developing countries.

âÄúI went to Tanzania for my Ph.D work and thereâÄôs no electricity or running water in most of these areas,âÄù Schmitt said. âÄúThis project can do a lot of good in delivering not only vaccines, but all sorts of other goods.âÄù

The team of researchers will also be seeking more funding through the National Science Foundation and are working on publications to bring more awareness to the project.

Though it depends on the amount of money they are able to raise, they plan to launch the delivery system in the spring.