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Using sun to cool vaccines, Indian scientist gets Kalam as first client

The reason often given for the failure of immunisation programmes in rural areas is that implementers are unable to keep vaccines in cold storage for want of power supply. SolarChill, a vaccine cooler developed by an Indian scientist under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), may help solve that problem.

The cooler developed by Rajendra Shende, head of the UNEP’s OzonAction Unit, will be launched in India on November 1. Backing the idea, President A P J Abdul Kalam has already purchased two units, to be installed at the clinic in Rashtrapati Bhavan.

“We are handing over SolarChill to the President. It is not being launched commercially as it is in the process of WHO clearance,� said Shende, who’s in Delhi for the installation of the units at Rashtrapati Bhavan. “I had told the President about my project when I met him in 2005 while receiving an award. He was very interested and asked me to keep him posted.�

The idea struck Shende while travelling by bus in Burkina Faso some six years back. “Seeing the children there, I realised their fragile health. It occurred to me that plenty of sunshine does not mean plenty of health. Some children, carrying their sick younger brothers and sisters, were looking at us as if we were from other planets,� he said.

“I thought that if we could develop a vaccine cooler that uses the solar energy so abundant in Burkina Faso and other developing countries, and if we develop a vaccine cooler that uses the solar energy so abundantly available there.�

He said he thought of an affordable, environment-friendly version of solar coolers as he was already working with WHO on ozone depletion.

“It’s not a new concept. Solar refrigerator vaccine cooler unit are produced in the world but they always have lead batteries. When in the night stored in lead batteries, the walls of the vaccine refrigerator have to be thick enough to keep the vaccine cold at low temperature —2 to 8 degrees Celsius according to WHO,� he said.

“Besides the lead batteries are toxic, difficult to carry, every three to five years you have to change them. We decided to utilise to create ice box within the refrigerator that will provide the required insulation even during night.�

He said the cooling unit, too, did not use regular freon-based chemicals, which deplete ozone and add to global warming. One unit can serve the vaccine needs of some 50,000 people. The units will be available for commercial manufacture by 2007.

Shende’s idea was jointly taken up by UNEP, Unicef, WHO, the Danish Technological Institute, Greenpeace, GTZ Proklima and Programs for Appropriate Technologies in Health (PATH). Refrigeration companies Vestfrost and Danfoss took part in the development of SolarChill, which took place in Senegal, Indonesia and Cuba.

India has tried to use solar coolers before in pilot projects, but the units then used, run either on kerosene or using lead batteries, were found ineffective. Shende’s new machines — with no batteries — might prove a boon, although the Health Ministry is yet to try it out.

Shende is hopeful. “I have heard news of resurgence of polio in India and people saying that vaccines have been administered. What is the use of giving the vaccine if it is not potent. May be this type of cooler can help the immunisation programme.�

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