Emerging Technologies

Drones, infant necklaces and other innovations to vaccinate more children

A drone is placed on a launch pad at operations center in Muhanda, south of Rwanda's capital Kigali where Zipline, a California-based robotics company delivered their first blood to patients using a drone October 12, 2016. Picture taken October 12, 2016. REUTERS/James Akena - RTX2PJU3

The Rwandan government uses drones to deliver medical supplies. Image: REUTERS/James Akena

Marie-Ange Saraka-Yao
Managing Director for Resource Mobilisation, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance
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Africa is fast becoming a significant driving force for innovation. We saw this first with cell phones quickly outstripping landlines, followed by mobile-phone-based banking systems leapfrogging traditional banking.

Then, just last year, while regulators in the wealthy countries were still scratching their heads about commercial drone operations, the Rwandan government launched the world’s first nationwide drone-based service, delivering emergency medical supplies across the country.

But while disparities in infrastructure across the continent and a huge potential user base make it ripe with opportunities for large scale deployment of new technologies, getting demonstration projects to scale-up can be challenging.

Part of the problem is knowing precisely who in government to talk to. And yet, ironically, governments are crying out for cost-effective innovations that are capable of bridging markets. This disconnect between supply and demand is what is hampering efforts to improve immunisation systems in low-income countries.

Much of the existing immunisation infrastructure in Africa was originally built around the Expanded Program on Immunisation, which was created in 1974 to provide universal access to vaccine coverage.

While this supply chain architecture and cold chain equipment has served us well, today it is in great need of modernisation, expansion or replacement. Much of the equipment is the same as was used four decades ago — and it is beginning to fail.

Governments of these countries recognise the need to replace and extend existing infrastructure but find themselves almost overwhelmed with options of how to do this, as well as the realisation that it is likely to cost more.

Given how old existing systems are, any kind of modernisation will almost inevitably mean embracing new and possibly unfamiliar technologies, making it difficult to know which are most suited to their needs and which to trust.

'Too much choice'

From the introduction of a relatively simple bar code – a technology that is often taken for granted in wealthy countries – to wireless temperature monitors, cloud-based data systems or the use of drones for delivering medical supplies, there is almost too much choice.

So, to address this issue, last year we launched a new programme at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, called Innovation for Uptake, Scale and Equity in Immunisation, or INFUSE.

The aim is to identify exciting new technologies that are relevant to the modernisation and improvement of immunisation systems. Then using Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, as a kind of informed middle-man, INFUSE will provide countries with a means of expert review of these innovative solutions, while giving businesses and entrepreneurs introductions to the right people within governments and helping them find the necessary resources to go to scale.

It is early days, but so far the response has been impressive. The first year’s theme, “immunisation system data, availability, quality and usage”, attracted 70 applications, of which 30 were brought together for a workshop in Geneva for technical validation review.

There, expert representatives from the World Health Organization, UNICEF, International Telecommunications Union, United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Ashoka, FSG, Zipline, Mezzanine, PATH, IBM, UPS, Vodafone, Philips and the World Economic Forum identified seven solutions as having the potential to positively disrupt markets and shape the future of immunisation.


These “pacesetters” are now being taken forwards, including Nexleaf Analytics who, thanks to INFUSE and financial support from Google.org and Gavi Matching Fund, set up by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is now scaling-up ColdTrace in Tanzania.

Nexleaf builds wireless sensor devices and data analytics tools such as ColdTrace, a wireless remote temperature monitoring technology that protects vaccines. Another technology includes a system that connects children in remote locations to an electronic immunisation registry – using a simple immunisation information booklet equipped with Smart Paper Technology – and a digital vaccination card stored in a simple necklace worn by infants.

With more than 135,000 supply chain points in Gavi-supported countries alone, the hope is that INFUSE will inspire and attract many other new and appropriate technologies. At the same time, the aim is to help governments make informed choices to realise the potential of these kinds of innovations in transforming vaccine supply chains in low-income countries.

With the next workshop scheduled to take place in Barcelona in early July, INFUSE 2017 is now accepting applications from organisations, businesses and entrepreneurs with tech-enabled innovations that can improve immunisation uptake and health service delivery.

By making it possible to scale-up these kinds of innovations, Gavi is hoping to establish a new way of working that will ultimately help us achieve our goal of reaching a further 300 million children in poor countries with vaccines by 2020, saving between 5 million and 6 million lives.

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