When it comes to vaccinations, timing is everything. Children, teens and adults need to get vaccinations in the right doses at the right times for optimal protection from diseases. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), just 9 percent of U.S. children received all of their recommended vaccinations at the recommended times. For adolescents and adults, the rates are even worse.
To stay protected from preventable diseases, those missed shots have to be made up, a process that also requires perfect timing to be effective. But the rules that determine that timing are confusing and convoluted, even for the physicians charged with deciding when and what catch-up doses to give.
Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the CDC have made it easier for physicians, individuals and parents to keep up with missed shots: computerized tools that create a customized schedule for catching up on vaccines.
Pinar Keskinocak, Ph.D., co-director of the Center for Health and Humanitarian Logistics at Georgia Tech who led the scheduler’s development team, said the tools not only make things easier for individuals, parents, doctors and nurses, but they also strengthen protection against vaccine-preventable diseases for the entire population.
“When vaccines have different doses, as many of them do, timing is very important to give the best protection from a disease,” she said. “If you have a person who doesn’t get a vaccine or doesn’t get it at the right time, that’s when you have the potential for outbreaks of disease.”
Keskinocak and her colleagues built three scheduling tools for children ages 6 and younger, adolescents and adults. Parents or doctors can access the free tools on the CDC’s website, enter a child’s or adult’s vaccination history and instantly receive a schedule for the vaccines they’ve missed. The schedule even incorporates personal characteristics, such as whether a person will be travelling overseas or works in health care.
The tools are built on the CDC’s immunization recommendations, which change often based on new scientific findings, sometimes adding a new vaccine to the schedule or tweaking the recommended time between doses. Keskinocak said it’s difficult even for medical professionals to keep up with the shifting schedule, much less busy parents and adults.
“Creating a catch-up schedule is a difficult task,” she said. “Our tool speeds up and simplifies the process tremendously.”
Larry Pickering, M.D., executive secretary of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices who worked with the Georgia Tech team to develop the tools, said the vaccine scheduler has the potential to accomplish many important things for public health.
“One, it provides education about various aspects of vaccines and immunization, including what diseases are prevented and the safety of vaccines. Two, it provides information that parents and health care providers can use to ensure that children are appropriately immunized. Three, the scheduler acquaints parents with vaccines in the schedule and provides an overview of when and what vaccines their children should receive,” he said.
Keskinocak said her team also hopes the tools will make it easier for doctors to avoid missed opportunities to give vaccines, especially to people who are less likely to be vaccinated on time, such as children from low-income families who make visits to the doctor less often.
“If a doctor had the chance to see a catch-up schedule ahead of time, they could make some recommendations for vaccinations to give while the child is in their office that day,” she said.
The tools have already been popular with parents and doctors. Between June 2008 and March 2012, the scheduling tool for children ages 6 and under was downloaded about 107,500 times from the CDC’s website. A scheduling tool for adolescents was downloaded more than 40,600 times since it was posted in March 2011; the adult vaccine scheduler has gotten more than 58,000 downloads since January 2010. Under the leadership of Sheila Isbell from Georgia Tech Research Institute, the Georgia Tech team launched an online version of the tool in January 2012, and more than 170,000 people have visited so far.
"By making the tools freely available online, we are able to reach more communities with helpful and actionable immunization information," Isbell said.
Keskinocak and Isbell said their team plans to post online tools for adolescents and adults in the coming months. They also interested in creating a mobile app for tools for all age groups, as well as create a scheduling tool for children and adults who live in developing countries.
To access the catch-up scheduling tool for children, visit https://www.vacscheduler.org.