“Within an average of four hours, a non-refrigerated vaccine becomes ineffective,” Amos Asiku, the facility in charge at Bidibidi health centre III in Northern Uganda says.
Incidences of vaccines getting destroyed due to lack of refrigeration were common at the health centre which has been operational since 2016.
The health centre at the time had gas powered fridges with multiple mechanical faults causing breakdowns every so often, putting the vaccines at risk of getting destroyed. In addition, refilling of the gas in the fridge was strenuous since it was done from a distant area lasting multiple days.
“It had frequent breakdowns and when it went off, the faster you acted, the better, because the fridge would no longer be regulated, the vaccines would go bad which I termed as wasted because it can no longer be used,”Asiku recounts.
In the event of a break down, Bidibidi health centre III would move all the vaccines to a nearby government hospital for refrigeration which affected operation at the health centre in addition to time wastage.
The vaccine storage challenge affected about 150 people that visit the health centre on a daily basis including women and mothers in search for polio and early immunization vaccines.
In a twist of events, the hurdles became a story of the past after MTN in partnership with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) donated a solar powered fridge which would later become the salvation to a pandemic in the refugee settlement.
“MTN gave us a solar powered vaccine fridge that is able to run for 24 hours. It makes the antigens available for patients meaning they are able to access them at any time,” he says.
Some of the vaccines housed at the hospital include polio, HPV and most recently covid-19.
According to Asiku, the fridge has been very critical in safe keeping of the covid-19 vaccines which were received in May and have been administered in accordance with ministry of health guidelines.
“Covid-19 vaccines are also maintained on cold chain so we were able to maintain them under cold conditions to keep them safe until such a time when people wanted to take the vaccine,” he said.
As covid-19 cases rise in the country, the health centre is a medical relief to South Sudanese refugees and most recently Congolese refugees along with the area host community.
Bidibidi is only one of 10 health centres that were in dire need of refrigerators for vaccine preservation. In partnership with UNHCR, MTN handed over 10 solar fridges worth Shs600m to Odupi Health Centre III, Imvepi Refugee Settlement, .Swinga Health Centre II, Bidibidi Refugee Settlement.
Others included; Bangatuti Health Centre III, .Idiwa Health Centre III, Palorinya Refugee Settlement, PaludaHealth Centre II, Nakivale Refugee Settlement and Rulongo health centre II among others.
Rulongo health centre II in Isingiro is the converging area for refugees from Rwanda, Congo and Burundi. Like Bidibidi, Rulongo has greatly benefitted from the fridge especially during the pandemic.
“The problem we commonly get with vaccines is storage but this fridge is on 24 hours so you immunize and vaccinate clients at any time. For example we have already vaccinated people from covid-19,” Juliet Tuhirirwe, a midwife at Rulongo health centre 2 said.
Additionally, the fridges provided large space allowing for more doses of vaccines to be stored.
Speaking days after commemoration of the world refugee day, Conrad Olowo, Project Manager, MTN Foundation says MTN has over the years dedicated a lot of support to all communities including refugees in Uganda.
“We are glad to have played a critical role in strengthening the fight against covid-19. MTN through its operations also ensures to contribute to the fight against the virus through streamlining communication and financial services through mobile money,” he said.
He was reiterated by Wendy Daphne Kasujja the assistant Reporting Officer, External Engagement, UNHCR who affirmed that MTN has supported the refugees in Uganda and host communities with a focus on the health sector.
“Through their donation of medical fridges and construction of a full maternity ward in Palorinya refugee settlement, MTN has helped in ensuring that children get immunized, and contributed to the improvement of maternal and child health. The support received is not limited to refugees alone but includes the host communities in which they live, since refugees access the same government health facilities as the nationals,” she says.
UNHCR urged the private sector to support the refugee response in Uganda; a home to 1.5 million refugees and asylum-seekers.