Our work overseas

How do you deliver vaccines during a pandemic?

Vivien Maidaborn is used to fielding unusual questions. But this was a question even she hadn’t heard before.

Vivien Maidaborn is used to fielding unusual questions. Life as UNICEF New Zealand’s Executive Director keeps Vivien constantly on her toes. But this was a question even she hadn’t heard before.

UNICEF Pacific Representative, Sheldon Yett, called Vivien and told her that three vaccine carrier cases, each twenty kilograms, were being held at a warehouse in Nadi. Inside the carriers were vaccines to protect approximately 700 children up to 12 months of age against diseases like tuberculosis, pertussis, diphtheria, tetanus and polio. But, first, these vaccines needed to be transported to Tonga.

Under normal circumstances, the vaccines could be loaded onto a Fiji Airways flight, one which leaves Nadi International Airport most days and flies directly to Nukuʻalofa, the capital of Tonga. The flight takes only one hour and thirty-six minutes. Simple. 

Vanuatu | ©Unicef/UN0265424
Vanuatu | ©Unicef/UN0265424

Registered Nurse, Miriam Nampil, vaccinates the first baby with a commercial drone delivered vaccine.

But these weren’t normal circumstances. As in other parts of the world, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc with flights between Pacific nations and all flights between Fiji and Tonga are currently cancelled. 

But Air New Zealand still operates flights between Auckland and several Pacific nations. The vaccines could therefore fly from Nadi to Auckland, being stored there for four days, before catching the once-weekly flight from Auckland to Nuku’alofa. 

The flight from Nadi to Auckland was due to leave in two hours. The wellbeing of children hung in the balance. The clock was ticking.

“It was exciting actually,” says Viven. “We're often not a part of the supply chain. It’s so rare that we get involved in that part of the process.”

Even though UNICEF reaches almost half of the world’s youngest children with vaccines, the vaccines don’t often pass through Auckland International Airport. Air New Zealand agreed to store the precious cargo for four days, ensuring the integrity of the cold chain, keeping the vaccines at a stable temperature, ideally between two to eight degrees Celsius in order to be effective.

Samoa–UNI232386
Samoa–UNI232386

Matau Sanale (right) holds her seven-year-old daughter Maria's hand as she receives a measles vaccination administered by a nurse in Leauvaa Village, as part of a UNICEF-supported national vaccination campaign.

“Air New Zealand actually went so far as to ensure they had people rostered on over the weekend who would take particular care of those vaccines,” says Vivien.

The team effort comes less than a year after a measles outbreak in Samoa that killed over 80 children. During that response, the New Zealand Defence Force provided urgent logistics support, helping UNICEF transport 50,000 doses of measles vaccines. 

During the measles outbreak campaign, Samoa managed to reach 95 percent vaccination coverage, which is the WHO recommended target in order to protect the community from measles. 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.

On Tuesday, August 11, the vaccines departed Auckland for Nuku’alofa on the Air New Zealand plane and will be dispersed into service delivery points throughout Tonga over the coming weeks.

“I think we learned painfully that we've got one community between Pacific Nations and New Zealand,” says Vivien. “Because we're all one. We visit each other, people move backwards and forwards. We are the Pacific. We need to have systems that support the strength of each other's system.”