Can big data help end preventable deaths?

Gary Finnegan

Gary Finnegan

May 18th, 2017

Gary Finnegan

‘A series of measles deaths illustrates the urgent need to improve vaccination rates. A growing number of European countries are using digital vaccination records. Experts hope these systems could highlight at-risk populations.’

Measles claimed another young life last month: 17-year-old Ines Sampaio. Ines died at a hospital in Lisbon from pneumonia caused by a measles infection.

On the advice of a doctor, she was not vaccinated for medical reasons. There is no suggestion that her family was anti-vaccination – both of Ines’s siblings were vaccinated.

The young Portuguese victim is the latest European to die from measles – a vaccine-preventable disease. Several countries are experiencing outbreaks, including Romania which has seen 17 deaths in 17 months.

Digital solutions

Doctors and health authorities have been urging people to be vaccinated against measles by having the MMR jab. The WHO says vaccine uptake is still too low in many countries, with ongoing measles outbreaks threatening region-wide efforts to eliminate the disease.

So, what can be done to boost vaccination rates?

One possible solution is the use of electronic vaccination records. These could help to pinpoint areas where uptake is too low, giving doctors and health authorities a chance to rollout targeted catch-up campaigns.

Some countries, including the UK, have been using this kind of detailed data for several years. Health authorities review to information on a weekly basis to see which clinics are falling behind on vaccines. Several countries are embracing similar systems, while others are just getting started.

Twenty-one European countries have developed or are in the process of creating systems to digitally record vaccination information, according to a new ehealth survey by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). Fourteen of these countries already have a system in place while seven more are piloting digital tools.

Automatic reminders

Five of the systems include automated reminders. The ECDC says these programs have the potential to automatically generate lists that identify under-vaccinated populations, determine which vaccines are overdue, and generate reminders for doctors and the public.

‘As healthcare systems strive to improve quality, safety and sustainability, digital solutions are proving to have the potential to strengthen disease prevention through immunisation.’ Said ECDC Director, Dr Andrea Ammon. ‘With this report, ECDC is able for the first time to present a clear picture of the status and functionalities of immunisation information systems across EU/EEA countries.’

Several of the digital systems used at national and regional level feature ‘whole-of-life vaccination data’, ensuring that they capture lifelong immunisation records rather than focusing only on children.

‘Digital vaccination records may allow an individual to keep up to date with their vaccination status,’ explained ECDC Director Andrea Ammon. ‘Access to this information could be critical since many adults may neither have had access to currently available vaccines as a child, nor developed immunity through natural infection. This would be of benefit to both the individual and public health and can empower citizens to become better aware of their vaccination status and needs”.

Vytenis Andriukaitis, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety added: “Immunisation Information systems constitute a good example of eHealth’s potential to improve disease prevention, by identifying unvaccinated populations and ensuring the necessary steps can be taken. Such digital systems enable information and data sharing between patients, healthcare providers, and health professionals.’

The importance of digital immunisation records is recognised by the 2014 EU Council Conclusions on vaccination as an effective tool in public health and further endorsed by the World Health Organisation’s European Vaccines Action Plan (EVAP).

Beyond Europe

Digital vaccination records are also being tested in remote regions of the developing world. Find out how a ‘digital necklace’ is helping to store vaccination information in villages in India. Read and watch the full story here