March 11, 2013 |

Solving the mystery of missing vaccines

We all stand in line at grocery stores every day casually using the very technology that could be a big part of the solution.

Editor’s note: This post was written by PATH’s CEO and president Steve Davis.

It’s a sobering fact: as much as 50 percent of vaccines purchased go missing between manufacture and delivery, which translates to millions of lost doses for children whose lives depend on effective vaccination. In the immunization world, it’s a problem called “wastage.” And we all stand in line at grocery stores every day casually using the very technology that could be a big part of the solution.

It’s a bar code. If every vaccine vial carried one, we could conceivably track it all the way from a supplier in Belgium or India to a child’s arm in Africa or Asia. Bar code technology and web-based repositories of data could allow us not only to see where vaccines are going, but also to manage inventory, prevent shortages, and ensure that vaccines are sent where they’re most needed. And don’t forget what it could mean for reducing costs.

It’s a little overwhelming to think about while waiting in the checkout line. So I recently cohosted with Seth Berkley of the GAVI Alliance a TED Challenge to help solve how we develop next-generation data and delivery models to reduce vaccine waste.

One day, one vaccine solution

TED, the well-known convener of people with interesting ideas, brought together leaders in the immunization field for a special day-long session as part of its conference in Long Beach, California. Our mandate was to tackle a problem that stands in the way of millions of children receiving all vaccines recommended by the World Health Organization. We set ourselves an ambitious goal: to reduce vaccine wastage by 10 billion doses by TED’s fortieth birthday in 2024.

The reasons vaccines don’t make it to children are varied—from the challenges inherent in pen-and-paper recordkeeping to the difficulties encountered in bringing innovations in vaccine delivery to scale in the world’s toughest environments. For a great summary of how vaccine delivery does (or sometimes doesn’t) work, watch this video from Project Optimize, a collaboration between PATH and the World Health Organization.

Tracking vaccines wherever they go

Our TED team of experts from the private, public, and nonprofit sectors decided to focus on developing a better tracking system to improve vaccine supply chain management. Our idea is to use several platforms—bar codes, but also text messaging and other models—to follow vaccine vials. We’ll store the information in web-based repositories, otherwise known as “the cloud.” We’re hoping to base our solution on open-source collaboration.

At PATH, we’ve been working on improving access to lifesaving vaccines for a long time. We’re already working on innovative uses of information technology to solve health challenges. Our mobile midwife platform, for example, improves care for mothers and babies in rural areas by giving midwives a mobile device that provides on-the-spot guidance for clinical decision-making, data collection, record storage, and patient education. Our cold chain equipment manager, a software tool, is already helping vaccination programs plan and manage their equipment needs facility by facility.

We’re working on bar codes for vaccine vials, too. In Tanzania, we’re collaborating with the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare and other partners to understand the requirements of a system to track vaccine products. We’re finding out whether technologies that are already commercially available—such as bar codes and scanners—can be adapted to the unique needs of Tanzania’s vaccine program.

Data in the cloud, vaccines on the ground

PATH and the GAVI Alliance have committed to provide coordination and leadership of the project we started in Long Beach. Now, we’re identifying more experts for working groups focused on technological needs, bar codes and labeling, data management, and user interface. We’ll reconvene this fall to bring together our findings and identify countries where we can test our ideas.

Vaccine waste isn’t a problem we can solve in a single day, but it is a problem we can solve. The potential impact of an effective solution is so great—millions of children free from the threat of preventable disease—that I can’t help but be excited by both the challenge and the opportunity at PATH, and with our work on the TED Challenge. I’m looking forward to letting you know of our progress in the months to come.

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