Hitching a ride aboard a flying, lifesaving vaccine delivery

UNICEF Pacific Chief of Comms Cate Heinrich flew aboard a lifesaving vaccine delivery to Samoa last November.

On November 29, 2019, Samoa was in the grips of a deadly measles outbreak. Eventually, 83 children would die. The New Zealand Defence Force provided urgent logistics support, helping UNICEF transport 50,000 vaccines. UNICEF Pacific Chief of Communication Cate Heinrich hitched a ride aboard the Royal New Zealand Air Force Hercules with all those lifesaving supplies.

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On November 28, what was the situation on the ground in Samoa?

The number of measles cases was rising every day. The Samoan Government had launched a national vaccination campaign. There were also outbreaks in Fiji and Tonga at the same time. Many children were being admitted to hospital quite late, already with complications like pneumonia and breathing difficulties. Children were dying from those complications. We know now after the outbreak that there were 83 deaths. There was a lot of pressure to act as quickly as possible.

How did the New Zealand Airforce become involved in this delivery?

500,000 vaccines had landed in Nadi, Fiji on the afternoon of November 29 to be sent to countries who needed them most. There needed to be a really quick turnaround for vaccines to reach children in Samoa as quickly as possible. And, unfortunately, there were no planes scheduled to depart that day. Logistics can be quite challenging in the Pacific at the best of times.

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What are the logistics like in a situation like this? Why was it so important that everyone work quickly?

The logistics involved to get this number of vaccines into the Pacific are incredibly complicated. UNICEF had reached out to the global UNICEF supply division at the request of governments in the region. They then worked with different global suppliers in order to get the vaccines sourced to the islands. As you can imagine, there are many links in the chain to make that happen.

Once the vaccines reached Nadi, they couldn’t be left to sit out in the sun, in the higher temperatures of Fiji. They needed to be kept at a stable temperature, ideally between two to eight degrees in order to be effective. At different stages of the journey, and on arrival into Samoa, the UNICEF team were checking the temperature of the vaccines. There are temperature thermometers in the boxes to make sure the vaccines are kept cool.

It wasn’t just a time saver; it was a life saver.

It was a similar situation when we arrived in Samoa at the other end. A colleague of mine in the supply division of UNICEF, Patrick, waited with staff from Samoa’s Ministry of Health, in order to get the vaccines quickly off the flight, through customs, and then immediately off to the hospital. It took till about 2am that morning, with our Ministry colleagues, to unload the vaccines, straight into the cold room.

Then first thing in the morning about a hundred health teams came to the main hospital in Apia. The vaccines were ready to then be checked and packed into the nurses’ vaccine carriers with ice packs, in order to go out to the different villages under the national vaccination campaign that day. It wasn’t just a time saver; it was a life saver.

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What was the experience of flying on a Royal New Zealand Air Force Hercules like?

It was a unique experience. The pilots were really nice to me and let me sit up the front so that I could hear what was going on. It was like they were speaking another language sometimes. You can't actually talk directly to someone else. Everyone’s wearing headphones, and you can hear everything spoken between the pilots.

There are a lot of different monitors and gadgets in the cockpit. I was really worried that I might accidentally push a button or touch the wrong thing. I just tried not to touch anything.

What were the pilots like?

There were five pilots, including the captain, in the cabin, and others in the cargo section keeping a close eye on the vaccines. The captain looked like he had stepped out of Top Gun. The whole experience was like being in a movie. The pilots had all actually been on their way back to New Zealand and their families when their plane was diverted to do this emergency pickup and drop off in Samoa.

Once we got in the air, the pilots were asking me a lot of questions about what was happening in Samoa. They were really concerned about the children there. They asked me what the challenges were, and what the situation was like on the ground. I was quick to ask them if they all had their vaccines. Which, of course, they all did, being with the air force.

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What’s the situation in Samoa now several months later?

Samoa has now managed to reach 95 per cent vaccination coverage, which is the WHO recommended target in order to protect the community from this disease. But there's still a lot of work to be done. UNICEF is there supporting the Ministry of Health and has a multi-year program, strengthening routine immunisations and introducing three new vaccines: rotavirus, pneumococcal and the HPV vaccine.

UNICEF is also working to support families who've been affected by this tragedy. This involves things like providing psychosocial support to families who may have lost children, and also working to improve water and sanitation, nutrition and so on. There's still lots to be done in order to improve routine vaccinations and ensure this situation never happens again with a different preventable disease.