A high-tech, low cost fingerprint reader attached to Android smartphones and tablets is promising to revolutionise vaccine delivery to young children across Africa. The system is called VaxTrac, and it’s an online system for tracking medicines and patient records for the children who receive them which has been on trial in Benin for the last two years.

And now, say its creators, it’s ready to expand across the continent.

If there’s one thing that most people would agree could be done better across Africa, it would have to be reducing the number of children that die before the age of five on the continent. It’s an area where, according to the latest WHO statistics (for 2012), the continent lags behind the rest of the world. Huge progress has been made – the rate dropped from 106 deaths per thousand children born in 1990 to 63 deaths per thousand in 2012, but in every other territory the improvement was sharper. Over the same period of time, the rate dropped by two thirds in the Americas, more than halved in South-East Asia and went from 63 to 35 on a global scale.

Across Africa, however, more than two million children still died before they reached the age of five in 2012. And that’s something that has to change for the better.

Vaccination programs against diseases like HIV/AIDS, polio, measles and so on and are vital for improving the prospect of children reaching adulthood. But even where they exist, up to 50% of the vaccines can be wasted through improper storage or delivery. In addition, poor record keeping leaves healthworkers at a loss as to who needs vaccinating and when.

That’s where VaxTrac comes in. Founded in 2006, the company has been developing a vaccine tracking system that is designed to reduce waste and improve efficiency of vaccine delivery in all communities. At its core is a patient records and medicine records system that can be synced to an Android tablet or phone. A fingerprint reader attached to the device gives instant access to a patient’s records and allows healthworkers to keep records of who has received what up-to-date.

“Using fingerprint sensors to identify a child in place of paper-based vaccine cards allows health workers to have all of the information necessary to provide the appropriate health services without putting the burden on the mother to retain and return with the paper card,” explains Mark Shermetaro, “In some settings, paper vaccine cards return to the clinics with the child less than 5% of the time, which ultimately makes them ineffective.

“The proper biometric authentication of a child and matching them to their health record ensures that they receive only the vaccines they need, avoiding situations where health workers administer unnecessary vaccines,” he continues, “In the limited supply environment, every dose administered unnecessarily means another child goes without that life-saving vaccine.”

Shermetaro says that the data collected from the front line can then be fed back into the system to improve efficiencies elsewhere, giving even remote health outposts the ability to develop supply demand forecasting and supply management that ensures the right amount of vaccines with no overstock left to spoil.

Shermetaro is the CEO of Lumidigm, the company that provides much of the technology behind VaxTrac, including the fingerprint reader. This isn’t just any fingerprint reader, by the way. It’s a sophisticated scanner that will make iPhone 5s owners weep that was added to the system at the start of the Benin trial last year.

According to Shermetaro, using biometrics to track the vaccine deployment is much more reliable than family names in many rural areas. The problem VaxTrac faced, however, was that many fingerprint readers tend to produce interestingly incorrect results when used in “difficult environments” – like hot, dry, dusty, dirty villages where children may or may not have washed their hands in the last few days.

“[Also], the skin of children, especially young children, can be very malleable,” says Shermetaro, “Conventional biometric technologies that need a finger pressed against the device do not work for this type of application. The ability that Lumidigm offers to pull fingerprint images from deeper layers produces images less susceptible to distortion and allows VaxTrac to track vaccinations accurately.”

Naturally we asked Shermetaro about the privacy issues of biometrically profiling every newborn in a country, and his reply was pretty convincing.

“VaxTrac only collects patient information specifically relevant to vaccine delivery, minimizing the amount of sensitive data,” he explained, “The only biometric information stored is a unique hexadecimal identifier—as opposed to actual images of the fingerprint—that is the output of the fingerprint evaluation algorithm. This preserves a one-way flow of information. A record can never be matched to a specific individual; it requires that the individual actually be present to be matched to their record.”

Shermetaro says that it only costs around R5 000 to equip a clinic with a VaxTrac system, so it’s inexpensive too. It will be trialled in more countries around Africa this year, as well as in Indonesia and Nepal.

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.