June 1, 2008 Engineers used mathematical modeling as the basis of a computer program designed to track and schedule immunizations for infants. The web-based program asks for a childýs birthday and prior vaccinations, then outputs a schedule to bring the child up to date in a safe and effective manner.
New numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate more than a quarter of all toddlers in the United States may be under-vaccinated, which can leave them unprotected against diseases like measles, mumps and even polio. Now, researchers have teamed up with the CDC to help keep kids' vaccinations on track.
Nine-week-old Grace Marsaa is getting her very first vaccinations. For her parents, it's the beginning of a long and sometimes confusing process. "You know you have all these years that you have to keep track of it -- which ones come when and everything," Louise Marsaa, Grace's mother, told Ivanhoe. "It's hard!"
A recent survey found that only nine percent of children get all their vaccinations at the recommended times. Only half receive all recommended doses by their second birthday. "If the child doesn't receive the doses on time or if some of them are given at the wrong time the vaccination doesn't have the coverage that it's supposed to," Pinar Keskinocak, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, told Ivanhoe.
Using computer science and mathematical models, Dr. Keskinocak, her colleagues and the CDC have created a new, interactive childhood immunization schedule. "What we offer is a computer program that in some sense gives the best possible scenario given that a child is falling behind the recommended schedule," Faram Engineer, a Ph.D. student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told Ivanhoe. Parents or physicians can put in a child's birthday and what vaccinations they've already received.
The web-based tool creates a safe and effective catch-up schedule for any vaccinations they've missed. Thanks to operations researchers who use math to find the best solution, Robert Harrison, M.D., a pediatrician specializing in infectious disease at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, says the vaccination schedule is likely to be a big help to doctors and parents. "I think it's absolutely wonderful. It's helpful to the parents in case they have any questions about what they've had and what the limits are," Dr. Harrison told Ivanhoe.
Researchers say the computerized tool will help doctors and parents keep up with changing rules and requirements for childhood vaccinations.
The interactive schedule can be downloaded for free at http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines.
THE MAKING OF A VACCINE: Whenever a disease-causing micro-organism enters the body, the immune system mounts a defense, producing proteins to fight off the foreign substance. Vaccines stimulate the body's immune system by introducing a weakened form of a particular germ or virus, making the body think it is being invaded by a foreign organism. If a person who has been vaccinated is later exposed to the virus, he or she will be protected because the body already has the necessary antibodies to ward off infection.
HOW DOES THE BODY PROTECT ITSELF? The human immune system is a network of immune cells produced in the bone marrow from stem cells. The immune cells circulate through the body in the blood, or are stored in the lymph nodes located at various spots in the body. Some immune cells are more general, patrolling the body and clearing away dead cells, viruses and bacteria. Other cells are activated only by a single substance (called an antigen), such as a particular protein on the surface of the virus. These are called T-cells. When T-cells detect the presence of an antigen, they multiply to combat the invading virus.
The American Mathematical Association of America, and the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences contributed to the information contained in the video portion of this report.
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.