Immunization has saved the lives of more children than any other medical intervention in the last 50 years. Yet, 2.5 million children worldwide die each year because they do not receive these life-saving vaccinations at the appropriate time. But a new project, led by Dr. Anil Jain, Michigan State University professor, seeks to change that: Along with his colleagues, Dr. Jain is developing a fingerprint-based recognition method to track vaccination schedules for infants and toddlers, which the team hopes will increase immunization coverage and save lives.
Vaccines are safe, simple and one of the most cost-effective ways to save and improve the lives of children worldwide. Immunization has led to the eradication of smallpox, a 74 percent reduction in childhood deaths from measles over the past decade, and the near-eradication of polio.
Despite these great strides, there remains an urgent need to reach all children with life-saving vaccines. One in five children worldwide are not fully protected with even the most basic vaccines — often because they live in hard-to-reach communities and are among the most marginalized members of the community.
Vaccines are often expensive for the world’s poorest countries, and supply shortages and a lack of trained health workers are challenges as well. Unreliable transportation systems and storage facilities also make it difficult to preserve high-quality vaccines that require refrigeration.
Inadequate surveillance is also major challenge to universal immunization. To increase coverage, the vaccines must be recorded and tracked. The traditional tracking method is for parents to keep a paper document. But in developing countries, keeping track of a baby’s vaccine schedule on paper is largely ineffective, said Dr. Jain.
“Paper documents are easily lost or destroyed,” he said. “Our initial study has shown that fingerprints of infants and toddlers have great potential to accurately record immunizations. You can lose a paper document, but not your fingerprints.”
Fingerprinting technology promises to be ‘of immense global value’
Dr. Jain and his team traveled to rural health facilities in Benin, West Africa, to test the new fingerprint recognition system. They used an optical fingerprint reader to scan the thumbs and index fingers of babies and toddlers. From this scanned data, a schedule will be created and become a part of the vaccine registry system.
Once the electronic registry is in place, health care workers simply re-scan the child’s fingers to view the vaccination schedule. They know who has been vaccinated, for what diseases and when additional booster shots are needed.
These new electronic registry systems will help overcome the lack and loss of information, which is the primary problem in the vaccine delivery system in third world nations, Dr. Jain said.
The team acknowledges that the new technology is not without its flaws. Collecting fingerprints from fidgety infants is not easy. And their small fingerprint patterns have low contrast between ridges and valleys, making fingerprint matching more difficult.
“The process can still be improved but we have shown its feasibility,” Dr. Jain said. “We will continue to work on refining the fingerprint matching software and finding the best reader to capture fingerprints of young children, which will be of immense global value. We also plan to conduct a longitudinal study to ensure that fingerprints of babies can be successfully matched over time.”
There will be other benefits in addition to tracking vaccinations, said Mark Thomas, executive director of VaxTrac, a nonprofit organization supporting Dr. Jain’s research.
“Solving the puzzle of fingerprinting young children will have far-reaching implications beyond health care, including the development of civil registries, government benefits’ tracking and education recordkeeping,” Thomas said.