The Cost of Saving a Life

Vaccines save lives. It is a fact that has been repeated over and over. And it is one of the most important facts that you will ever hear (and, hopefully, believe). If you need proof, you’ve only to look to one of the deadliest diseases known to man: Smallpox.

Smallpox is a disease that plagued humanity for tens of thousands of years, and although we don’t know what the overall death toll is, we know that the number is staggering. In the 20th century alone, it killed over 300 million people. In 1967, the World Health Organization estimates that smallpox killed an estimated 2 million people worldwide. This is just one virus over the course of one year.

Today? No one dies of smallpox. Not one person. It was eradicated by a vaccine. The last naturally occurring case was in 1977. But there is a serious problem with vaccines. No, it’s not that they are dangerous or cause autism (they aren’t. They don’t). It is simply that people lack access to these vital medical treatments.

At the Social Good Summit this weekend (Sept. 17, 2017), Rachel Kyte, CEO of Sustainable Energy for All and the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All, summed the problem, and it all goes back to energy: “We take cooling of ambient air temperature for granted, we take the cold necessary for food for granted, but we have 2 million preventable deaths a year due to lack of access to cooled vaccines.”

This results in two primaries problems: Economic loss and loss of human life.

To break this down a bit, many vaccines are sensitive to changes in temperature. In order for them to remain viable, they need to be kept between 0 and 8 degrees Celsius (32 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit). This temperature is difficult to maintain in the areas where vaccines are most desperately needed, such as Africa, which is an area that has some of the most extreme heat on the planet. In fact, vaccines in Africa generally only survive five days before they are ruined by improper cooling, which is linked back to difficulties with storage and lacking energy provisions.

As the World Health Organization states, “Keeping heat-sensitive vaccines and other drugs at the right temperature is crucial yet often difficult in areas with limited or no electrical power.” And this results in two primaries problems: Economic loss and loss of human life. Keep in mind, vaccines aren’t just important, they are also expensive to create and transport.

Kyte notes that, unless we take immediate action, this problem—and the death toll—is only going to increase: “As the population grows, as the world gets hotter, this is going to get worse because we will need to get cooling to more and more people….this is a global crisis that demands immediate attention.”

A Solution That Benefits All

Part of the problem, Kyte asserts, is that individuals and innovators primarily view solutions to this crisis as a “handout;” they fail to see the remarkable potential that this problem provides. As we have seen time and time again, developing solutions for one issue results in innovations that help people, society, and even corporations in a multitude of ways.

For example, we owe ear thermometers, dental imaging tech, GPS systems, freeze dried food, fire retardant coatings for aircraft, and so much more to NASA. These technologies have benefited all of our lives, and our economy, and they come from a space agency.

To this end, as Kyte notes, “the first challenge is just understanding the magnitude of the potential if we get this right,” clarifying that, “trillions of dollars could be made by not leaving anybody behind.”

Bioprinting: How 3D Printing is Changing Medicine
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So, what to do? Simple, at least according to Kyte. If you have an engineering degree, this is where you need to turn. This is where you need to apply your knowledge. “I think 5000 people every month move into a city in Africa or Asia. That’s where the population is growing and concentrating and there’s where services need to be delivered….this is a massive opportunity. We have to rethink everything that makes it possible to live in those temperatures—from houses to cooling systems.”

To this end, much can be gained when innovators look beyond the needs of Western nations are start innovating in sectors and areas where assistance is truly needed. Already, some have taken up this flag. The Passive Vaccine Storage Device, for example, was designed in such a way that it keeps vaccines at the necessary temperatures for a month (or more) with no need for electricity. It also allows for repeat vaccine retrievals

As Kyte concludes, “we need creative disruptive solutions at scale quickly.” You can, quite literally, be part of the solution.