MAF flies AstraZeneca vaccine to remotest Lesotho

Published: 26 Mar 2021

Preparing to load the AstraZeneca vaccine onto an MAF plane bound for Kuebunyane

The only way for the coronavirus vaccine to reach the mountain people of Kuebunyane is by an MAF airplane. MAF pilot, Grant Strugnell, was privileged to transport the region’s first batch of life-saving vaccines, so Kuebunyane’s frontline health workers could get inoculated…

On Tuesday 23 March, MAF pilot, Grant Strugnell, flew the first doses of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine to the mountainside clinic of Kuebunyane – an area comprising of several rural villages with a combined population of more than 62,000 people.

The nearest hospital to Kuebunyane is an eight-hour overland journey to Qachas Nek on the South African border. This journey involves a steep, four-hour hike across a deep valley to reach the nearest road, followed by a four-hour drive to Qachas Nek – an arduous journey, which would certainly spoil the vaccines.

‘The Lesotho Flying Doctor Service’ is a division of Lesotho’s Department of Health where MAF aircraft are exclusively used to fly medical care into remote areas. In terms of transporting the coronavirus vaccine, MAF aircraft are the only reliable way to accomplish this critical ‘last-mile’ delivery.

Kuebunyane nurse administering AstraZeneca jab to a fellow health worker

Vital to maintain vaccine ‘cold-chain’

The vaccines were accompanied by three nurses who boarded the 30-minute flight to Kuebunyane from Lesotho’s capital, Maseru. They were responsible for administering the jab to fellow health workers.

Shortly after landing, MAF enabled around 60 health workers to receive their first coronavirus vaccination. Many of them walked across mountainous terrain from surrounding villages to reach Kuebunyane, which is located 2,293 metres above sea level.

The AstraZeneca vaccine must maintain a constant cool temperature of between two and eight degrees Celsius. Specially designed cooler bags containing the vaccine were therefore stowed alongside PPE in MAF’s Cessna 206 aircraft to achieve this consistent ‘cold chain’ throughout the vaccine’s entire journey.

‘MAF aircraft are well suited for this critical 'last mile' vaccine transport. By offering a half hour journey rather than 8 hours, these vaccines can arrive at the required temperature.’ MAF pilot, Grant Strugnell

Health workers are a priority

Grant Strugnell - who has flown with MAF in Lesotho since 2018 – gives an insight into Lesotho’s remote, rural vaccination rollout:

‘Kuebunyane is one of the locations we fly to most because reaching this location by road is just too difficult. The clinic is located on a steep mountain ridge, four hour’s trek from the nearest road. On average MAF lands there twice a week, offering the only air service to connect this remote region to vital medical supplies and staff.

‘Some recipients of the jab were not nurses, but members of the community who have a little extra knowledge of primary healthcare, so it’s really good news that they were vaccinated too. I’m pleased that MAF aircraft are so well suited for this critical last mile vaccine transport. By offering a half hour journey rather than eight hours, these vaccines can arrive at the required temperature.’

The Lesotho government has prioritised frontline health workers to receive the first 36,000 doses of the Oxford-produced AstraZeneca vaccine, which arrived in Lesotho on 3 March (source: Reuters).

A nurse from Lesotho’s Flying Doctor Service carries the vaccine in a cold bag on foot to Matsaile’s mountainside clinic

MAF also flies vaccines to Matsaile

MAF also delivered the AstraZeneca vaccine further east to Matsaile on Friday 26th March - another mountainside clinic, equally difficult to reach. There is no road to the village. The vaccine had to be transported on foot in cold bags from the airstrip to the clinic – a 40-minute trek through the countryside. Again, health workers were prioritised.

Health workers from surrounding area prepare to be vaccinated at Matsaile Clinic

 Follow Grant Strugnell's journey into remotest Lesotho where he despatches the lifesaving AstraZeneca vaccine: