Nithya Ramanathan and ColdTrace: Why monitor vaccine temperatures?
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Nithya Ramanathan and ColdTrace: Why monitor vaccine temperatures?

Posted by Lauren Hertel on Monday, February 2 2015

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Editor's Note: This story was originially published on IDG Connect's website.

Before routine childhood vaccinations large numbers of people used to contract diseases like TB and polio with often devastating consequences. Now vaccinations are standardised and have virtually eradicated many of the health problems that used to run rife through populations.

However, there is one problem. Despite a concerted effort on the part of health workers and decent supply of vaccinations, power issues in emerging regions often means these vaccinations - which require refrigeration -  get spoiled. 

This is where ColdTrace from Nexleaf Analytics offers a solution. This is a wireless sensor which remotely monitors the temperature of vaccines. Then, by storing all the data in the cloud it aims to provide a holistic overview of vaccine cold storage.

At present this is being deployed in test areas across Kenya, Mozambique, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Laos. While extra deployments are planned in Kenya, India and Tanzania this year. We catch up with Nithya Ramanathan, Co-Founder and President of Nexleaf Analytics, to learn more.

Nexleaf Analytics has produced a number of mobile monitoring solutions for emerging regions, how did the idea for ColdTace come about?

We'd been developing low-cost remote temperature monitoring (RTM) technology for use in cookstoves, and a collaborator pointed us toward the unique problems of the vaccine cold chain. We realised that our technology could also be used to monitor vaccine cooler and refrigerator temperatures and ultimately save vaccine doses from loss due to extreme temperatures.

Following small local trials, you raised $6,308 (well over your $5,000 goal) in Spring 2013 and also won the Vodafone wireless innovation competition, what did this mean for ColdTrace?

Thanks to our Indiegogo and Vodafone funding, we were able to scale-up our project pilots in Kenya to reach all the relevant facilities in a single district. This was huge for us, because operating on that scale helped get ministries of health in several countries more interested in ColdTrace. We were also able to scale up manufacturing of our devices to prepare for even more deployments.

Last June you gained Phase II funding from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation GCE initiative, can you explain how you’ve progressed and where next?

This exciting new funding has enabled ColdTrace to scale-up and reach more countries. We now have over 100 sites in Mozambique, and we're planning to reach several hundred sites in India. We're increasing our capacity to work with ministries of health to establish scalable and sustainable interventions. In the future, as we learn the challenges ministries face in keeping refrigerators running, we plan to develop even more technological solutions to address the problems we encounter.

There are clear benefits to monitoring the temperature of vaccines in remote regions, but who actually analyses and acts on the results produced?

We've seen first-hand that we've been successful in alerting health workers in clinics to check coolers when the temperature changes. These individuals can then take immediate measures to protect the vaccines, such as switching the refrigerator to a backup generator or adjusting the thermostat. They can also call for back-up support, such as a ministry of health maintenance personnel. In addition to that, they can use the data we provide on temperature changes and power outages to figure out which fridges are most problematic. With this documentation, clinics can lobby for better equipment.

As there are so many challenges with power in emerging regions and outages often happen at antisocial times, does knowing there is a problem really allow it to be fixed?

First of all, generating data about the number and nature of temperature change events helps health systems personnel to understand the problems that exist. Secondly, health care workers do respond to the alerts they receive. They come in on weekends or other off times when action is required to save vaccines. And if nobody is able to ameliorate or prevent vaccine lost, every temperature change event is still logged. Simply having the data helps the larger bodies such as ministries of health improve forecasting, planning, infrastructure, and resource allocation.

What feedback have you had on how this is impacting local communities on the ground?

We conducted a randomised control trial, and we saw very positive results in terms of improved outcomes. A number of vaccine doses have already been saved. Additionally, in India, the staff at one of our test sites was able to use our data to motivate the equipment coordinator for their district to replace a defective refrigerator.

One of the listed benefits of ColdTrace is it facilitates the creation of a cloud database of temperature data – how do you think this will help the global medical community in the long-term?

Ministries of health need real data so they know how often repairs are needed. Our data can help them budget for maintenance staff and parts. Additionally, the refrigerator manufacturers love the data we gather. They want to know how best to design equipment for the power outages that do occur, and they want to know how their equipment is performing in the field. And global stakeholders interested in vaccination can use our data to allocate funding.

There are a lot of new mobile health initiatives springing up around the world, what other solutions have you been particularly impressed by?

I really like Logistimo. I appreciate its strong data-driven approach and how it works hard to get the right data to the right people. It does impressively rigorous studies on the impact of its technology, and it also knows its customer really well.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with an IDG Connect’s international IT audience?

I would encourage everyone in IT to consider opportunities for innovation as technologists in the field of global health. The complexity of this landscape presents so many fascinating challenges for innovators who have a real commitment to follow-through. It's not just about having great ideas -- it's about learning how to scale-up and implement them to create maximum benefit.

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