Military cold chain combats global fronts

When the H1N1 "swine flu" vaccines become available in the next few weeks, quantities will be limited.

If product fails during cold chain distribution, replacement vaccine availability will be uncertain. This situation puts the heat on the U.S. military to make sure that packaged medication for troops stays within its appropriate temperature range as it's shipped globally through a complex distribution chain fraught with demanding temperature and humidity conditions.

Dana L. Dallas should know. She's the vaccine/cold chain program manager at the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia. Ms. Dallas delivered a presentation entitled, “Examining the Impact of Packaging and Shipping on Supply Chain Integrity for Vaccines and Challenging Destinations,” on Sept. 21. Her workshop presentation served as a pre-conference event for the 7th Cold Chain Distribution for Pharmaceuticals in Philadelphia. Here are some takeaways from her presentation:

• “Customers” include all military branches around the globe. These can include hospitals, warships, and in-field units. Warships and in-field units are typically on the move and cannot be served via normal shipping services. Orders are seasonal in many cases, and often include no advanced notice. In war times, the challenge becomes even greater as military aircraft used to ship products to such outposts are often diverted for combat purposes.

• Ms. Dallas cautioned against the use of dry ice as it's considered hazardous cargo and can't be used in Guam, a major military center.

• Cold chain shipments often go out “blind,” said Ms. Dallas. “We hope carriers follow instructions and customers know how to store and use them. We know that sometimes medications are stored in the same place as sandwiches. We've also seen lengthy delays due to hurricanes where product has had to sit in the plane's belly for days until the weather clears.”

• “Product packaging must be disposable,” she said. “Cold chain distribution advances have come a long ways in the 10 years I've been here. Phase-change materials are a great example of improving technology, but there are greater costs and price is a big-time deciding factor for us.”

• Regular turnover of military personnel with packaging responsibilities means packaging must be easy to use, and teaching such personnel how to use the packaging must not complicated.

• She recommended that product manufacturers include validated packaging and temperature monitoring processes in all long-term contract requirements.

Ms. Dallas commended several cold chain suppliers, whose products are being used for military shipments. They included TempTale monitors from Sensitech, thermal pallet shippers for air shipments from AcuTemp, and coordinated efforts to battle pandemic situations with FedEx Custom Critical.

Although costs continue to be a primary driver in cold chain packaging considerations, Ms. Dallas said price alone doesn't always dictate decisions. She pointed to several cold-chain packaging options now under consideration by the military in which cost concerns were secondary or tertiary.

Dallas finished her presentation with a “wish list” that included product manufacturers supplying the military with reliable stability study data--including potential FDA regulations to make that happen, the use of temperature-monitoring devices in all manufacturer shipments, and more manufacturers shipping direct to military operations overseas.

Editor's note: While at Milwaukee's Mitchell Field airport waiting for my flight to Philadelphia, I took the opportunity to thank a U.S. soldier for his service to our country. He was appreciative, saying that he was stationed in Missouri and headed for duty in Afghanistan. God bless all of you servicemen and women serving our country, whether you're in the battlefield or packing medical supplies for cold chain distribution throughout the world. Thank you!
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