Alaska's Challenge Distributing Swine Flu Vaccine

States like Alaska, with people living in very remote areas, have a unique challenge when it comes to distributing the swine flu vaccine. Laurel Wood, Alaska's Immunization Program manager, says the vaccine arrives in Anchorage, Alaska, from where it is sent to other parts of the state, including those without roads.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Swine flu vaccine is making its way across the United States. About 90,000 sites are scheduled to receive the vaccine by the end of this month. States like Alaska, with people living in very remote areas, have a unique challenge when it comes to distributing the H1N1 vaccine. And here to talk more about that is Laurel Wood. She is Alaska's Immunization Program manager. And she joins us from Anchorage. Welcome.

LAUREL WOOD: Thanks very much.

BLOCK: Let's talk about some of those challenges. First of all how do you get the vaccine and then how do you figure out where it's going to go?

WOOD: Every health department in the United States is getting vaccine from various locations from our distributor. Ours is actually coming from Memphis. It arrives in Anchorage. One of the reasons that it's important that we have that stop in Anchorage is because there are so many locations in Alaska that don't have road service or other things where the vaccine could get there quickly enough if we didn't repackage it after it arrived in Anchorage.

BLOCK: And you mentioned repackaging there. I was interested in this detail in the Anchorage Daily News, that it's being repackaged in insulated boxes designed for fish.

WOOD: That is important for me to make sure that people understand that these are really well-insulated boxes and the reason that we're using them is because they are so well made. In fact, they're more well made than the boxes that we used to have delivered here from the Lower 48. We certainly are not using a box that had salmon in it yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WOOD: It is brand new box, well-insulated and serves our purposes for making sure that the vaccine arrives where it's supposed to at the correct temperatures. In fact, one of the things that we always have to watch out for is not that the vaccine gets too warm, but we need it to be in a well-insulated box so that it actually doesn't get too cold during the travel in the winter.

BLOCK: How do you make sure that the temperature has been controlled, that it stayed within the range that it's supposed to?

WOOD: With each box of vaccine, we pack indicators that can show whether the vaccine either got too warm or too cold. If one of these indicators show that it went out of that range, then that will make the vaccine nonviable and we won't be using it. So it's really a critical aspect of this vaccine delivery - is determining the best ways to maintain the cold chain.

BLOCK: Okay, so you repackage the vaccine into these refrigerated boxes - I won't call them fish boxes, and...

WOOD: Thank you.

BLOCK: And then you need to figure where it's going. And obviously, a lot of these places you mentioned are not accessible by roads. So it's going out on bush planes, small planes?

WOOD: Typically what happens is it goes out of Anchorage on a larger plane, arrives in a hub community where it is then redistributed again via bush planes. Often it's by people who are traveling to one of these communities and they carry it with them on the plane. One of the long histories in Alaska is of trying to deliver pharmaceuticals to these far-flung locations.

Certainly, people have heard about the Iditarod trail sled dog race that occurs today, that was based on the idea of trying to get diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, and we continue to do that with more modern equipment now. We might be using a snow machine or a four-wheeler in the summer as well as obviously bush airplanes. But the process remains the same. It is an interesting endeavor to try to get vaccine into some locations in Alaska. Thank goodness we have great partners to work with to make this happen.

BLOCK: Laurel Wood, thank you very much.

WOOD: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Laurel Wood manages the Immunization Program for Alaska's Department of Health and Social Services.

BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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