Thoughts from the Last Mile Welcome to the VillageReach Blog
06.05 2009

VillageReach and the Innovation Pile-up

Welcome to the VillageReach blog! This blog follows VillageReach’s progress as well as interesting ideas, projects and events at the intersection of health with social enterprise, technology & logistics.

We ’re launching with our thoughts on the “Innovation Pile-up.” Chris Elias, the Executive Director of PATH, coined this phrase to describe the coming challenge facing public health systems around the world as years of medical research and development, particularly for vaccines, come to fruition.

When VillageReach started working in Mozambique in 2001, we found there was no system for distributing medical supplies beyond the provincial level … a situation that’s unfortunately the norm in most developing countries.

The Mozambique system was chaotic and under-resourced in 2001. Since then, the world has begun to invest heavily in new medical products, such as vaccines, to address the huge disease burden affecting developing countries. Governments, international organizations, and private charities have spent trillions of dollars in research and development of new products. But new opportunities bring new challenges. The new vaccines just starting to become available are much more expensive and are physically, much larger.

For example, polio is a basic vaccine administered around the world today. Twenty doses of polio fit in a vial about the size of your little finger. At 13 cents per dose, the vial is worth only a few dollars. A twenty-dose, polio vial doesn’t take up much room in the refrigerator, and if the distribution system ruins a few vials, or has a few leaks in it, then the loss is not huge.

In contrast, one new vaccine to prevent rotavirus, a stomach bacteria that kills thousands of children every year, costs $5 and is the size of your fist. The HPV cervical cancer vaccine is expected to be priced between $50 and $100 per dose in developing countries. The malaria and HIV vaccines, which we hope are coming soon, are also likely to be very expensive. Current distribution systems are overwhelmed now; the new products will swamp them.

Unless we invest in improving the ability of developing countries to handle these new products, trillions of dollars of investment will be wasted and, more importantly, children in those countries will once again, be passed by. While we can get excited about new product developments, and rightly so, we can’t forget that our job is not done, until drops are in mouths, and needles are in arms.

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