Vaccine card rewards mothers who take children to hospital

Dr Benson Wamalwa displays the bar-coded
Dr Benson Wamalwa displays the bar-coded vaccination card that tracks vaccinations and rewards mothers with discounts on farm products. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA  

Majority of poor women give birth at home, and paying for immunisation against diseases like tetanus is an extra cost they cannot afford.

But a new technology is seeking to lure mothers into taking their children for immunisation against polio, diarrhoea, pneumonia and other diseases that kill thousands of infants yearly.

Dr Benson Wamalwa, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi has developed a barcoded vaccine card that can be redeemed for discounts on farm products by mothers, each time they get vaccinated or bring a child for immunisation.

Dr Wamalwa noted that mothers are prudent with the way they use their resource— be it finances or time. He said majority of women come from low income settings where every shilling counts.

“A mother will therefore find it a waste of time to leave her part-time job and go to a clinic far away, then have no money for buying food to feed her family in the evening,” he told Digital Business.

Government statistics show that just about 77 per cent of Kenyan children aged between one to two years have been fully vaccinated.

Yet, the coverage should be at 100 per cent for the maximum effect to be achieved so as to reduce the burden of immunisable diseases like polio, pneumonia and diarrhoea. The main goal of the innovation is to make mothers view vaccination as something worthwhile.

“We wanted them to feel that they can gain something by taking their children to hospitals for all recommended immunisations.”

This digital innovation, whose pilot phase was funded by a Sh9 million ($100,000) seed grant from Canada, increased the uptake of vaccination services from 55 per cent to 95 per cent in Bungoma and TransNzoia counties where it was piloted and is still being used up to date.

The reward system, made possible through the use of barcoded vaccine cards, now serves as an incentive for mothers to complete recommended immunisation schedules.

Normally, mothers are given the Mother & Child Health Booklet when they attend their first antenatal visit.

Among other details, this book has an immunisation schedule for the expectant woman as well as for the child once it is born. Once vaccinated, a health worker indicates the date on the card which acts as proof of the service.

Dr Wamalwa’s innovation digitised this manual system. This process began with the development of barcodes representing each of the vaccines required by mothers and children.

Once generated, the barcodes were then printed on stickers which were later pasted on booklets given to expectant mothers. Whenever any woman with this barcoded vaccine card visits a health facility, nurses use a smart phone to read a selected barcode which shows the type of vaccine to be given on that day.

Once the mother or child has received the vaccine, the barcode is updated with ‘agro-credits’ which she can redeem at specified agrovets.

This is done by taking the barcoded immunisation card to local suppliers —partnering with the project —who will sell to the women agricultural products such as seeds and fertilisers at discounted prices. The discount is given based on pre-negotiated percentages revealed when the barcode is scanned.

Apart from increasing immunisation rates, the innovation has improved food security in pilot areas as women can now have access to high quality farm inputs at subsidised costs. Pilot results revealed that households participating in the scheme enjoyed a 70 per cent rise in beans harvests.

Dr Wamalwa hopes that the approach can be replicated in various parts of the country to increase immunisation rates, which are still low in some regions despite the services being offered free of charge in public facilities.

He, however, calls on the government to address the challenge of vaccines shortages since it undermines the universal access to immunisation services. He said the team chose a business model to guarantee the sustainability of the innovation.

“Instead of giving handouts, we are partnering with various agricultural suppliers who offer discounts to mothers. And this is a common strategy used to attract customers.”

While improving the health of women and children in their communities, the project has boosted business for agrovets.

During the implementation period, some suppliers ran out of farm inputs following increased demand from mothers who had visited different clinics.

The success of this innovation further led to it being awarded Sh10 million ($120,000) after winning the 2014 GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Save the Children Healthcare Innovation Award.

This award seeks to identify and reward innovations that have proven successful in reducing child deaths in developing countries.

“These finances will enable us to scale the project to other regions,” said Dr Wamalwa.