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What does a refrigerator have to do with saving lives?

Vaccines are miracles. They prevent illness with just a little jab in the arm, and have helped to eradicate and eliminate some of the world's deadliest diseases. So what's the problem? Well, as we've blogged about before, though vaccines are life-saving tools, they are rather high maintenance. Most commonly available vaccines must be kept between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius - any higher or lower, and the vaccine could lose its potency or become unsafe. 

For most of us that remember going to the local clinic, pediatrician's office or pharmacy - we probably took it for granted that there were lights and refrigerators keeping those vaccines at just the right temperature. Steady access to electricity is one such luxury that many developing countries don't have, which can be a huge barrier to safely reaching children with vaccines. Sure, you can find a Coca-Cola product in villages like Kawambwa, Zambia, but Coca-Cola doesn't have to be kept cold. (For those interested in how health interventions which don't require a cold chain are tacking onto Coke's supply chain, check out: http://www.colalife.org/)

Rogers Feng, a mechanical engineering student at Northwestern University in the United States, developed an innovative hand-crank refrigeration system that could keep vaccines cold enough to reach remote populations in developing countries. The device uses a hand crank to store enough energy to keep vaccines in the mini refrigerator cold, but not too cold. What's the price tag, you ask? He developed the prototype for about $150, but estimates that with scale-up, could be produced for as little as $50. 

Will this superstar student be promoted to the vaccine hall of fame? Not quite. Feng says he's most concerned about finding a job after graduation. 

The advocacy community has a responsibility to ensure that innovators like Feng are adequately supported and that ideas produced from a university lab are field-tested, scaled-up and implemented when appropriate so we can begin to use the life-saving vaccines we already have to reach more children. 1.5 million children under the age of five die every year from a vaccine preventable disease. With innovations like Feng's, and constant political and financial commitments to immunization programs, that number should be zero.  

Check out the details of his design:

To read more about the James Dyson award, click here

To see the original article about the innovation in Scientific American, click here.