Overcoming COVID-19 challenges to deliver vaccines for children in West and Central Africa

UNICEF worked with partners to develop successful innovative solutions to address this challenge.

Anne-Isabelle Leclercq Balde
Two mens carries a box
07 July 2020

DAKAR, 5 July – How do you make sure that vaccines and other life-saving supplies reach children who need them in West and Central Africa when measures put in place to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as global travel restrictions and border closures, make the delivery of these supplies a logistical nightmare? UNICEF West and Central Africa worked with partners to develop successful innovative solutions to address this challenge.

The Expanded Programmes on Immunization in West and Central Africa were gearing up to implement activities that would have contributed to reach close to 14.2 million children in 2020 through both routine and supplementary immunization activities or campaigns.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic had an unprecedented impact on global supply chains and deliveries of essential supplies for children, including vaccines. The disruption of air traffic directly impacted UNICEF’s capacity to deliver vaccines, with a major risk of set-back for immunization programmes in West and Central Africa. In addition to a lock-down in India, where 60 per cent of vaccines are produced, UNICEF faced the suspension of almost all commercial flights usually used for vaccine deliveries and a drastic price increase.

“As countries attempt to recover lost ground following COVID-19 related disruptions, reestablishing immunization, one of the simplest and most effective life-saving interventions, is a key step towards strengthening primary health care. Every child has the right to be protected against measles, polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases”, said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa. “UNICEF is working with partners to restore and revitalize services, rectify coverage and immunity gaps and expand routine services to communities where children have not yet received any vaccine in West and Central Africa. Vaccines availability is key to this strategy.”

Checking the reception of vaccines
UNICEF Immunization Officer Buya Jallow and Logistics Officer of the Ministry of Health’s Expanded Programme on Immunization Malick Sogur receive the vaccines consignment for The Gambia and Guinea Bissau at the Banjul International Airport.

To overcome the challenges generated by the pandemic, UNICEF worked with partners to design innovative solutions to deliver these life-saving supplies against all odds. In early April, charter flights with COVID-19 critical supplies and special flights organized by European countries, with support from the European Union and ECHO, were used to transport UNICEF-procured vaccines, in addition to the rare operating commercial flights.

To anticipate potential shortages as some countries approached their vaccine stock limits, UNICEF Supply and Immunization experts worked with countries in the region to identify where the needs were most pressing and secure priority delivery to these countries, to ensure the continuity of immunization programmes, including in the hardest-to-reach countries.

“UNICEF approached freight forwarders to study the feasibility of multi-stop vaccine charter flights from India with direct delivery in Western and Central Africa countries”, explained Jean-Cedric Meeus, UNICEF Regional Chief of Supply in West and Central Africa.

Despite the complexity of organizing such logistics operation in terms of ensuring the cold chain, coordinating with suppliers or organizing landing permits, this solution was successfully put in place by UNICEF Supply Division.

On 8-9 June, for the first time, one charter loaded 15 metric tons of vaccines from two origins in India to ship them to eight destinations (Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Mauritania and Sierra Leone. From Gambia, vaccines were transported by road to Guinea Bissau).

Checking boxes of vaccins
Relief in Guinea as the vaccine shipment is received by UNICEF at the Conakry International airport, on time for health districts to pursue their vaccination efforts for children

“Congratulations !” said Dr Moustapha Dabo, coordinator of the Guinea’s Government Vaccination Programme, expressing his relief to see vaccines arrive on time to avoid shortages. These vaccines, funded by GAVI, should have arrived early May and Guinea stocks were getting low.

As part of the same strategy, a charter delivered 23 tons of vaccines to Burkina Faso on 4 June. During the first week of July, two additional charters were organized from Europe and delivered vaccines to six countries in West and Central Africa (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Sao Tome & Principe and Togo).

A UNICEF Burkina Faso team receives the shipment of vaccines
UNICEF Burkina Faso/C.Tarpilga
A UNICEF Burkina Faso team receives the shipment of 1.8 million vaccines at the Ouagadougou International airport.

“The arrival of this first shipment in Burkina Faso since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic is a huge relief. We will be able to keep supporting the Government vaccination programme”, said Anne Vincent, UNICEF Representative in Burkina Faso. “Vaccines stocks were running low at a time some epidemics are reappearing, such as measles. It is therefore urgent to strengthen monitoring and routine vaccination”.

Since 1 March, these mitigation measures allowed UNICEF to deliver 152 million doses of vaccines in 20 countries in West and Central Africa region. An additional 60 million will be delivered in July. In addition to vaccines ($128 million), $92 million of other essential supplies were delivered with support from UNICEF since 1 March for children in West and Central Africa.

UNICEF Burkina Faso