It's not always patents and price tags that keep lifesaving medicines from reaching people living in remote villages in the developing world. When donated medical supplies arrive in countries such as Mozambique, for instance, they are typically distributed to the provinces by national authorities. So far, so good, but to reach the villages themselves, local health workers often have to leave their patients to go pick up the goods. As a result, the drugs and vaccines can sit in waiting rooms indefinitely.
A small Seattle-based non-profit called VillageReach is proving it is possible to help transport medical supplies across those final distances to villages in Mozambique and Malawi that had initially lacked adequate transportation, refrigeration, manpower and other infrastructure to do the job on their own. A combination of technological innovation and entrepreneurial creativity has been key to the effort.

"With billions of dollars being spent to develop new vaccines, bridging the last mile can mean the difference between lifesaving drugs getting stuck in a bottleneck or reaching the people who need them most," reports The Seattle Times.

The VillageReach team started out its efforts to improve healthcare access a few years ago by working with the government of Mozambique to round up trucks and field coordinators. Then to track the fleet and its cargo, a logistics model was set up much like the one that UPS uses to deliver packages. In fact, the company hired a former "brown" to help devise the system.

But having the wheels to reach villages is not always enough to deliver medical treatments and supplies. Many medicines require refrigeration to survive the trek, and Mozambique was short on the electricity to provide that chill. This inspired the non-profit to help launch VidaFuel, a for-profit propane-gas business that also acts as a financial support for VillageReach's efforts.

The Times reports that an independent study found VillageReach helped boost Mozambique vaccination rates from 68 percent to 95 percent, among other achievements.

This week, VillageReach added further to its bank account and accolades, as the Oasis Fund, a European commercial investment fund that focuses on social entrepreneurship, committed nearly $1.4 million to the cause. VillageReach also received a Nokia Health Award as part of the international Tech Awards program that honors innovators who apply technology to benefit humanity.

"What is unique about VillageReach," VillageReach President Allen Wilcox told the Times, "is we are trying to enhance systems that exist and leave behind a legacy of infrastructure improvements to allow the system to sustain itself."

Such a strategy could be especially crucial when the 150 million H1N1 "swine" flu vaccines that pharmaceuticals have agreed to donate so far, according to the Wall Street Journal, arrive in developing countries.

Picture of drug delivery in Mozambique courtesy of VillageReach