Be cool: How two innovative new projects from Doctors Without Borders are aiming to make a difference

How can we use technology to save more lives? Pete blogs about the latest Doctors Without Borders projects aiming to do just that...

An MSF plane is prepared for take off in Central African Republic

Médecins sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is always looking for ways we can improve the work we do, treating people in need in crisis zones around the world.

As part of this we set up “the Sapling Nursery”, a fund which supports our field teams to develop and tests new ideas. I wanted to let you know about two more innovative projects that have just been funded.

More than twenty projects proposals were submitted in this round of and deciding which would be funded was, as always, a difficult decision.

I hope you enjoy reading about them here and will hope to keep you updated as they get started in their first phase of development.

1) Last Mile FriGo

Access to modern medications means that people with HIV are leading long, healthy lives. But regular monitoring of the amount of HIV in a patient’s blood (their ‘viral load’) is vital to make sure that the specific drugs a patient is prescribed are working for them. If a drug isn’t working and a patient’s viral load increases, they can become dangerously unwell.

In Zemio, Central African Republic, where MSF helped to establish Community Adherence Groups (or CAGs) for patients taking HIV medication, this kind of monitoring is incredibly challenging. The viral load samples must be transported over 1,000 km to the testing lab in the capital city, Bangui. To be useable, they must be kept cold throughout the journey, despite the country’s tropical climate.  


MSF logistician Julien Devos prepares a "cold chain" cool box in the Central African Republic
Logistician Julien Devos prepares a "cold chain" cool box in the Central African Republic

The process of keeping things cool in transport is known as a "cold chain". The simplest way to maintain a cold chain is to pack the samples with icepacks. But Zemio doesn’t have a reliable supply of icepacks, and any delay in the journey can mean the ice inside them melting in the tropical heat, leaving the samples useless.  

The "Last Mile FriGo" team are aiming to fix this problem. An MSF medic and Royal College of Art designer, together they are exploring available technology to develop 'active' cool boxes. These cold chain containers will generate power on the go in order to actively maintain specific temperatures, no matter the climate. This would be a change from "passive" cool boxes, like those relying on icepacks, which can’t be temperature controlled and don’t respond to the external climate.  

If successful, the possibilities for active cool boxes would go far beyond the transportation of viral load samples…

In the Central African Republic alone MSF teams need to transport drugs such as Oxytocinat to health centres at 2-8 degrees Celsius to prevent women haemorrhaging after childbirth; rectal Artesunate to remote villages to use in the treatment of severe malaria; and essential drugs like diazepam, insulin, artesunate and ketamine from storage to emergency room in hospitals with no active cold chain.  

And this is just a few examples of the ways these devices could get vital medicines to the patients who need them. Across the world there are many more…

2) Smarter Water for MSF

In a crisis situation like a natural disaster or during a disease outbreak, clean water is vital for saving lives. People can be displaced from their homes and forced to live in crowded, informal settings with very limited infrastructure, like refugee camps. Outbreaks of diseases such as cholera, which is carried in dirty water, can spread fast and claim huge numbers of lives.  

But ensuring a ready supply of clean water is not an easy task.

Many of the places MSF works are geographically remote. The climate may be very dry, making water hard to find, or prone to monsoons and flooding, meaning water is easily contaminated. Wells, reservoirs and rivers maybe inadequate, polluted or simply not exist.


Rohingya refugee children queue for clean water in Bangladesh
Refugee children queue for water at a camp in Bangladesh

All this makes finding, storing and distributing clean water a vitally important element of our work, with little room for error.

This team, from across MSF projects in multiple countries, are developing a system which consists of a network of connected devices that acquire information such as water depth, pressure, flow rate and quality in real time.  

These devices could be installed wherever MSF’s water is sourced, treated, stored or transported, whether that’s in underground boreholes, tanks or treatment systems.

This data from the devices will be sent via a local gateway to a dashboard where it will be displayed for MSF's water and sanitation specialists and will be able to generate alarms for prompt intervention where there are critical issues. Our teams will be able to better monitor, maintain and develop these vital water systems.  

Provision of water is something MSF does at huge scale and is a vital and integral part of any humanitarian response. Last year, millions of litres of water were provided for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh alone. If this team can optimise and improve water system performance, the impact could be really high. That means helping us reach more people with clean, safe water, freeing up staff time to work on the next vital task, and saving donor money that could be spent on life-saving work elsewhere.

Do you have a professional interest in these projects? Click here to email the team 


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