Using bar codes to track vaccines

By Daphne Allen in Bar Coding on March 27, 2015

A pilot program employing GS1 Data Matrix codes yields “positive results.”

Bar codes are being used to transform the vaccine supply chain in Tanzania.

In 2011, the World Health Organization’s Vaccine Presentation and Packaging Advisory Group (VPPAG) created a bar code subgroup to develop a plan for bar coding vaccines to enable tracking throughout supply chains in developing countries. GS1 was asked to facilitate this work group with members from WHO; the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF); PATH; GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance; and the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA), reports Ulrike Kreysa, VicePresident, Healthcare at GS1.

The project fit into PATH’s mission, which is to “accelerate innovation across five platforms—vaccines, drugs, diagnostics, devices, and system and service innovations—that harness our entrepreneurial insight, scientific and public health expertise, and passion for health equity,” it describes on its Web site. (The group was once known as the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health.) “By mobilizing partners around the world, we take innovation to scale, working alongside countries primarily in Africa and Asia to tackle their greatest health needs. Together, we deliver measurable results that disrupt the cycle of poor health.”

The vaccine supply chain in particular is often disrupted. “Vaccines need a cold chain, yet the supply chain is often fragmented,” explained Janice Kite, Traceability Director Healthcare, GS1 Global Office, who spoke in February at Pharmapack Europe.

“The supply chain is often broken as vaccines are expired or not stored correctly, are not available when needed, and traceability is not achievable,” adds Kreysa. “With that, the responsibility towards the donors is not fulfilled.”

With funding from GAVI, PATH began a pilot in Tanzania to determine whether bar codes could be used successfully to track the location and status of vaccines.

In February 2014, Pfizer began including a two-dimensional bar code (a GS1 DataMatrix with GTIN, lot number, and expiry date) on the secondary packaging of a specific vaccine shipped to Tanzania, Kreysa reports. “This was in line with the recent WHO recommendations for GS1 bar codes on all packaging levels with the exception of primary packaging containing the three above-mentioned data elements,” she explains. “Other manufacturers have since then also shipped vaccines with the recommended identification to Tanzania.”

Vaccine shipments were scanned as part of the receiving process at the central national warehouse, and correct Vaccine Arrival Reports were automatically created, explains Siobhan O’Bara, senior vice president, GS1 US.

To make this automation possible, the open Logistics Management Information System (LMIS) was updated with the support of the Tanzania’s Ministry of Health and Social Welfare’s (MoHSW), which intends “to improve the quality of immunization data management,” GS1 explains.

The pilot project in the province of Arusha got very good feedback “as national, district, and regional immunization officers saw the addition of bar codes to the vaccine management process as very positive,” GS1 reports.

Challenges with the program included scanning in low light with crowded conditions, and the small size of bar codes, PATH reports.

Because of the positive results, the project will now be rolled out further across Tanzania and therefore make the necessary changes in the national systems, reports Kreysa. At the same time, PATH will look further into the business case and impact of this change, specifically with regards to reduction of waste, accuracy of inventory, and with that more efficiency and safety in the distribution of vaccines in the country and to children in need for the vaccines, she says.

Adds O’Bara: “The Tanzania vaccine-tracking project is a real use case showing how bar coding can improve the supply chain in developing countries.”

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