Routine wellness checks and vaccination rates for children and adolescents plummeted last year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Numbers started to rebound by the end of 2020, but it was not enough to catch up to pre-pandemic levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In a report released June 11, the CDC states this could lead to an increase of vaccine-preventable diseases as more young people head back to school in the fall. This situation is exacerbated by ongoing lower vaccination rates among vulnerable populations — or those living under the poverty line.
For example, National Immunization Survey data shows 20% lower vaccination rates in rural communities. With the help of college interns, the OSF Innovation Design Lab is working to turn those numbers around.
The Design Lab is one of seven OSF Innovation labs exploring, developing, testing and scaling solutions for some of the most pressing issues facing OSF HealthCare. It’s taking on four projects focused on increasing childhood vaccination rates.
The first will result in the creation of artificial intelligence (AI) software that will identify areas of under-immunized children. The second project will use the data gleaned from that software to direct a mobile vaccination program, which provides free routine vaccinations to children in high-risk areas.
“We received grant funding to expand vaccinations to children in families that don’t meet the requirements for the federal Vaccines for Children (VFC) program,” said Scott Barrows, director of the Design Lab. “We will also purchase refrigerators for the mobile OSF Care-A-Van to store vaccines when going out into communities.”
Another effort is to reach out, engage and educate underserved populations on the importance of pediatric vaccinations. And the fourth project underway is to address COVID-19 vaccination hesitancy and why it’s happening.
“There is some uncertainty from parents about the same vaccinations we all have had and that most kids in America get,” Barrows said. “We won’t be talking anyone into getting vaccinated, but we do want to answer basic questions and give people accurate information to make informed decisions.”
Barrows said his interns with backgrounds in computer science and psychology, as well as user interface and experience design, will get a chance to work on all four projects. Joining the team are Matthew Selvaraj, a computer science and pre-medicine major from the University of Illinois Chicago, and user experience design majors Kyle St. John and Spencer McDaniel from Bradley University.
"The projects we are working on at OSF are a huge undertaking, but the payoff of the work will be well worth the effort,” said McDaniel, who is also majoring in psychology. “These projects also align with my personal career goal of making user-friendly interfaces for the benefit of others."
The interns are funded through a variety of sources, including the Jump Applied Research for Community Health through Engineering and Simulation (ARCHES) program, the Illinois Innovation Network and the Human Resources & Services Administration (HRSA).
“Informing and protecting our youth against preventable diseases is a noble cause that I feel is important for the future health of our population,” St. John said. “I'm excited to be part of this effort!"
Importance of interns
With help from grant funding, the interns working with the Design Lab will be with OSF Innovation for nine -months to a year, working a couple of days a week on the projects.
“Having interns is such a win-win situation,” Barrows said. “They will receive experiences very few people in the country get. And we can produce things we normally couldn't have produced without help from the academic institutions we are working with and clinicians from OSF.”
The projects aimed at increasing childhood vaccination rates builds on work done by OSF Faith Community Nurses, the OSF Care-A-Van and street medicine teams that have partnered with churches, community centers, schools and harm reduction agencies to address the unique issues within vulnerable neighborhoods. The Children’s Innovation Lab and Data Science and Advanced Informatics Lab are also working on these efforts.