The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has made huge efforts to distribute more vaccines around the world. It’s invested in new types of drugs, new delivery devices, and new cold-chain systems, so fewer medicines deteriorate. But even all that isn’t always enough to save lives. If children don’t make it to clinics, all the prior work could be wasted.
Lauren Braun noticed precisely this problem while working in Peru, in 2009. Mothers living in the Cusco mountains would often fail to appear for appointments, forcing nurses to chase families in their villages. “My job was to follow these nurses around,” Braun says. “It would take so much time, up to four hours a day, just going door-to-door. At a lot of times, the mothers weren’t home, and we’d have to come back another time.”
The clinic issued paper reminders, but the mothers lost them, or couldn’t read. Braun therefore thought of an alternative: a bracelet that would alert the mothers every time they needed to come down from the mountain. “It came into my head, and I just sketched it out one day and showed it to some nurses,” she says. “They were so excited, because they knew it would make their lives easier.”
When Braun got back to the U.S. (she was a student at Cornell at the time), she created a silicon band printed with numbers (for months) and symbols (representing the type of vaccines needed). The bracelet lays out the full 20-jab schedule mothers need to follow for the first four years of their kids’ lives. Every time they visit, nurses punch through the symbol, recording that dose.
Last November, the Gates Foundation gave Braun a $100,000 grant to pilot the idea further. About 100 mothers in Peru, and 50 in Ecuador, are now using the system. “They’re always looking for ways to improve the vaccine delivery system,” Braun says of the Gates Foundation. “This is about getting the users to come in on time, and effect the whole supply chain, and make that a little bit smoother.”
If the pilot is successful, Braun will apply for a phase 2 grant worth another $1 million. That would allow her to invest in more pilots (she is keen to try it in Africa) and develop more bracelet sizes. The current version is one-size only, and too small for some older babies with thicker wrists and ankles.
Braun is also interested in talking to pharmaceutical groups about public-private partnerships, seeing that as a way to reach scale quickly. Either way, she sees the bracelet as a simple and cheap way to get more kids vaccinated.