The vaccine storage refrigerator at Kimabur Dispensary in Turkana County is covered in a layer of dust, a clear sign that it has not been used for some time.
Ekai Emurai, a health officer at the centre, confirms that they ran out of gas months ago and are still waiting for a refill. The refrigerator runs on gas.
About 10 kilometres away, at Lochwaakamat Dispensary where Emuria said they had sent their last supplies, another solar powered vaccine refrigerator lies unused in the now abandoned facility.
“We have been out of gas for months now, the health department is aware but these things have to go through various processes before funds are released,” said Emurai. This is one of the reasons most infants go unvaccinated in the region, missing out on life saving immunisation.
Elphas Nyabuto, the Nurse-in-Charge of Lochwaakamat Dispensary, said that storage limitations force them to source vaccines 27 kilometres away at Naposmoru Health Centre. This is a journey that can only be made by motorcycle taxis owing to the rough paths connecting the two dispensaries.
“The solar vaccine refrigerator is not in working condition and as such we cannot give vaccines as often as we would like to. We are only able to vaccinate children once every month because getting supplies to the dispensary is a challenge for us,” said Nyabuto.
“Our patients have to walk for kilometres and sometimes travel overnight to get treatment. In addition, most of them are nomads and some are often not in the region during vaccination days,” he said.
If a refrigerator was available at his facility, Nyabuto said, vaccinations would increase and avert some diseases like pneumonia. #It is a requirement that some vaccines be stored in temperature ranges of two to eight degrees Celcius. Exposing them to higher temperatures destroys them.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), vaccines that are sensitive to heat include those for polio, influenza, measles, mumps, rubella, cholera, hepatitis B, rotavirus and yellow fever.
There is also a class of vaccines which should not be frozen or exposed to light. Turkana is an arid area with temperatures reaching 40°C during hot seasons. Keeping sensitive vaccines refrigerated remains of utmost importance. “Vaccine potency — its ability to adequately protect the patient — can diminish when it is exposed to inappropriate temperatures. Once lost, vaccine potency cannot be regained.
To maintain quality, vaccines must be protected from temperature extremes. Vaccine quality is maintained using a cold chain that meets specific temperature requirements,” says WHO.
A ministerial conference on immunisation in Africa report says that vaccines provide benefits beyond health outcomes, including averted medical costs and reduced time spent by parents and healthcare workers caring for sick children.
“These savings accrue to families, communities and nations as improvements in education, economic growth and poverty reduction,” The sporadic rainfall in the region has been blamed for rising cases of malaria and pneumonia which affect children the most.
For instance, Nasipumoru Dispensary recorded about 10 to 15 cases of malaria in October 2017, with children accounting for more than half of the cases.
The dispensary treated 10 malaria patients on the day before the Business Daily visited the facility, eight were children under five years.
In Lochwaa, Malaria is the most prominent disease afflicting the more than 30 patients treated every day. Pneumonia too is a major problem in the area. “The short rains are the main cause of increased cases of malaria and pneumonia. We have also seen growing reports of diarrhea and skin infections,” he said.
Kenya has a pneumonia vaccine for infants, however a malaria vaccine is yet to be introduced.
In April, WHO picked Kenya as one of the countries that will participate in the planned testing of the world’s first malaria vaccine.
The vaccine, known as RTS,S or Mosquirix, is considered humanity’s biggest advancement in the war on malaria, one of the leading killer diseases in Kenya and Africa.
However, for Turkana residents, the release of a new malaria vaccine will be of no consequence if their hospitals will still be unable to store drugs for them.