For many of us born and raised in the United States, vaccines are a familiar part of our doctors’ appointments. But most of us don’t know that there is a complex logistical operation dictating exactly what vaccines we receive and when. For example: how did your doctor know that it was your turn to receive a certain vaccine that day? Was it just by chance that the clinic you visited that day happened to have enough quantities of that vaccine on the date of your visit, in the correct dose amount, and stored at the right temperature? This was no accident. It was part of a carefully planned and executed immunization program. The backbone of such programs is solid data.

Quality, timely and accessible data are essential to every country’s ability to deliver vaccines effectively to its population. From local health clinics to national health systems, data allow health care professionals to ensure the right vaccines are administered to the right people at the right times. For example, at a health system level, an estimate of the target population is essential to plan vaccination services, procure the right number of vaccine doses and reach the target population. These data are also key to determining immunization coverage and how well a country is meeting its population’s vaccination needs. When these needs aren’t met, gaps in immunization coverage occur and certain parts of the population remain unvaccinated, leaving people at risk of contracting dangerous diseases.

For an immunization system to function its best, data on who has received what immunizations must be online and integrated with data on vaccine supply. This allows the health system to base its vaccine stock management on actual vaccine usage rates, which in turn allows the system to store the right quantities of vaccines at the right locations, and reduces vaccine wastage and stock-outs.

Countries that have an immunization information system (IIS) are able to access, analyze and act on accurate immunization data in real time. This paves the way for improvements to immunization services and results in well executed vaccination programs.

By contrast, a lack of a computerized ISS in the Brong Ahafo region of Ghana makes it difficult to effectively manage immunization systems, according to Charles Gyamfi, the municipal disease control/surveillance officer in that region. Keeping track of young children within his city and ensuring that each child receives all of their recommended vaccinations is a challenge. In Brong Ahafo, each child is given a paper vaccination card, and while this helps document the child’s vaccination history, these cards are often lost or inconsistently used. Additionally, the storage of this information by the health system is cumbersome without an online system to manage it, making it more difficult to proactively follow up with children who miss their vaccines.  

This is why the Sabin Vaccine Institute sponsored Mr. Gyamfi to visit the Washington State Department of Health in the U.S for a week-long exchange. This visit was organized by Sabin’s International Association of Immunization Managers (IAIM), through a Peer-to-Peer Exchange Program that fosters learning and sharing of experiences between countries on how to advance immunization efforts.

The team in Washington, known for their excellent IIS, helped Mr. Gyamfi understand the process/steps involved in planning and building an immunization information system, how to test the system once it is built, and how to train human resources on how to use the system effectively. Since the conclusion of his exchange program, Mr. Gyamfi has drafted plans to build and implement a similar system in his region in Ghana, potentially using smartphone technology, and to link it with the rest of the country at all levels. Through this work, he has the potential to transform the delivery of immunizations in Ghana, and ensure that more children are reached with the lifesaving vaccines they need.

Immunization programs have the potential to save lives and improve productivity, but they need accurate, accessible data in order to succeed. Sabin is committed to expanding capacity and reducing needless human suffering from infectious diseases by supporting individuals around the world like Mr. Gyamfi as they learn how to advance IISs. Our immunization programs have come a long way in the United States, and we owe it to communities around the world to share our best practices so that they, too, can experience the benefits of effective data and vaccine management.