November 14, 2014 New Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Grant

VaxTrac is excited to announce a $2.5 million investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support development and implementation of improved technology for our ongoing childhood immunization project in Benin, West Africa. Since 2012, VaxTrac has been equipping and training frontline health workers in Benin to use a mobile vaccine registry system, with the goal of improving record-keeping, reducing vaccine waste, and improving vaccine schedule adherence among caretakers of children under five.

health workers

Health workers in Benin, West Africa

 

benin clinic

One of our clinics in Benin

While historically the VaxTrac system has used netbooks and an attached fingerprint scanner, this award will enable our team to roll out a new Android-based iteration that can be used on any Android smartphone or tablet. The new system will be designed entirely on feedback from frontline health workers and decision makers from Benin and will allow for a more intuitive work flow and data management process.  It will include updated versions of key features, such as parental fingerprint scanning, callback lists, and user-friendly data formatted specifically to the needs of decision makers. This most recent investment will also allow us to expand our coverage, ensuring that more children are immunized accurately and on time.

 

While we are currently serving 120 health facilities across two health zones in the coastal region of the country, the ongoing support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will allow us to add an additional zone in the dynamic resource setting of northern Benin, bringing an additional 126 frontline health workers from 25 health centers serving 148 villages into our scope. This award is the result of continued collaboration among VaxTrac, the Benin Ministry of Health, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization.  We are thrilled about the continued support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and look forward to continuing our work to improve child health in Benin.

mom and baby

Healthy baby and happy mom

October 10, 2014 Introducing: Our New Team Member Carmen!

Hello VaxTrac community! As my first full week comes to a close I’m happy to announce how thrilled I am to be a part of such a hands on and collaborative team. From the beginning I’ve been excited to work for a group that is directly impacting others around the world in such a positive way. I come from a Marketing and Business Management educational background and bring accounting and financial experiences from several different industries, including construction and legal practices. To finally have the opportunity to apply my office skills and creative passions for a worthy cause is a dream come true. I am in awe of the WeWork Wonder Bread facility we get to work in. We are definitely surrounded by a dedicated group of talented people that cultivates an inspiring work environment. Great for the coming winter months!

At the Oregon coast this past summer.

At the Oregon coast this past summer.

I moved to DC a year ago and originally hail from Seattle, Washington. I grew up there, as many others from the Pacific Northwest, with a huge love for the great outdoors. Anytime I can get to go hiking, running or swimming I’m a happy camper. As a little girl I wasn’t allowed to come inside unless it was time to eat; I miss those days!  I have enjoyed the east coast and try to see as much of this side of the country as I can. It’s amazing how much ground you can cover in just a short weekend trip. Everything is so close to each other! I love photography and I’ve been blessed with a lot of opportunity for adventure in the area. I’ve been camping on a beach with wild horses on Assateague Island, went rock climbing over a lake at New River Gorge, visited George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon and hope to have many other photo ops in this coming fall season. I also love food. I know it isn’t all that original, but I do enjoy playing around with different things and getting to eat, eat, EAT.

All in all, I’m pretty open to new things and the fact that I get to work with an organization directly impacting places and improving the lives of people around the world is just wonderful. I am beyond grateful and humbled to work with such driven and established people. I look forward to supporting all of our teams in administrative, HR and accounting roles. I’ll also be working with our team to upgrade our website. We’ve got a lot of great ideas and with the implementation of tablets in Benin and new project in Nepal coming up soon we’ll have a lot to share. As I continue to learn more about VaxTrac’s endeavors I’ll be sharing them with all of you on our social media platforms! Stay tuned, I think it’s going to a lot of fun!

October 7, 2014 Welcome: Lauren Spigel!

Lauren Spigel here signing in as VaxTrac’s newest Program Associate.  Tomorrow marks my one week anniversary with VaxTrac and I’m absolutely thrilled to be here.

I come to VaxTrac with several years of global health experience.  After focusing on international health as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, I decided to go off into the world and get some field experience.  I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua from 2011-2013, where I lived in a bustling community in the mountains, worked on health education activities on the municipal level, ate fresh avocados, adopted a puppy, and drank fresh juice out of the corner of plastic bags.

My work in Nicaragua primarily focused on sexual and reproductive health among women in rural areas. I worked with the local Ministry of Health to train brigadistas (community health volunteers) in various health themes, had women’s groups and a weekly radio show.  One of the most exciting projects that came out of my Peace Corps service is ChatSalud, a project that uses mobile phones to connect youth to sexual and reproductive health information via SMS. The project sparked my interest and passion for mobile health (mHealth), which takes advantage of the fact that 90% of the world’s population has access to mobile phones. mHealth provides an unparalleled opportunity to expand the reach of existing health care systems to the least accessible corners of the world.

Lauren doing mHealth research in Terrabona, Matagalpa Nicaragua.

Lauren doing mHealth research in Terrabona, Matagalpa Nicaragua.

Upon returning Stateside, I completed the Master of Public Health program at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, where I became actively involved in the JHU Global mHealth Initiative and managed to incorporate mHealth into most of my classes.

I’m so excited to bring my knowledge and experience to VaxTrac’s projects.  Beyond that, VaxTrac has been so incredibly warm and welcoming.  My Nicaraguan dog Maní and I have been settling into life at the office and I’m so thrilled to be part of the VaxTrac family.

Lauren and Maní settling in at the new WeWork office

Lauren and Maní settling in at the new WeWork office.

More updates to come, as Meredith has informed me that we’re spending a good chunk of November in Nepal!

September 19, 2014 Trip Notes: Meredith on Navigating Nepal

Mark and I at the top of the summit! Just kidding... Monkey Temple.

Mark and me at the top of the summit! Just kidding… Monkey Temple.

 

The beautiful Summit Hotel in Kathmandu overlooks the bustling city below, nestled between sloping hills which sit comfortably in the shadow of regal snow-capped mountains. It is also full of International aid workers, because naturally, everyone wants to work in Nepal.  The government estimates in fact that there are over 15,000 individual organizations working in the country throughout all sectors. As you can imagine, I was a little hesitant to dive in and start navigating the waters of partnership building in such a highly saturated ecosystem, but my fears were quickly assuaged as we jumped right in and got to work (shout out to Joon and Ravi at UNICEF Nepal for being such wonderful guides during our first hazy 48 hours!).

Mark and I spent several days in Kathmandu meeting with various stakeholders from our partners (UNICEF and WHO/CDC), to key people from the national ministry of health, and various consultants and experts from the immunization, technology, and health system strengthening space. It was an exciting, informative, and exhausting first week to say the least!

If we thought we might get a nice relaxing weekend, we were mistaken. Instead, we worked with WHO to organize a site visit to Nawalparasi in the terai region, one of two districts in which we will be implementing in early 2015. As someone so aptly explained to us, Nepal is laid out like a sidewise strip of bacon: the top golden brown layer is the mountains, the stripy red/yellow middle part is the hills, and the deep red piece that runs along the bottom is the terai. As it turns out, we will be working along the delicious bottom strip of the country that shares a border with India.  Much like fresh bacon, Nawalparasi is sizzling hot.

Busy streets in Nawalparasi.

Busy streets in Nawalparasi.

Despite the steamy temps, we had an incredible couple of days with our colleagues from WHO, CDC, and the US Fund for UNICEF (have to insert another shout out here to Susanna, Keiko, and Michelle for being such great travel partners!). Not only were we all graciously welcomed by the District Health Office staff, we were able to gather almost all of the information necessary for our initial project planning after visiting several different types of health facilities and speaking directly with facility managers and community health workers. We saw that Nawalparasi has a very well structured vaccine delivery system and can even boast that it is a fully immunized district! Like any project, this one will not be without its challenges, but it’s always a huge advantage to have such support from a local level and we certainly found that in Nawalparasi. As a small cherry on top, we were able to find a few hours in our busy schedule to visit Lumbini, the sacred birthplace of Buddha. Even in the rain, there’s no denying that this is a beautiful place that compels one to pause, and self-reflect. It was a wonderful way to mark the midway point in our busy trip.

With health managers in Nawalparasi.

With health managers in Nawalparasi.

Our second week found us back in the smoky hustle and bustle of Kathmandu, meeting with some inspiring and impressive NGOs and attending an eHealth strategy workshop organized by the Ministry of Health and UNICEF, showcasing both local eHealth projects and organizations as well as those from around the world. It was so cool to see so much capacity around using technology to improve health outcomes. We left the workshop feeling more motivated than ever to get to work and find our place in this rapidly developing and innovative health system.

All in all, the trip was a huge success. It’s near impossible to sum up all of the things we did and saw and what a different experience it was for me to see this part of the world. We owe a great deal to our amazing friends and colleagues both in Nepal and in the US for making it all happen. There’s certainly another trip in our near future to visit our second district (Dadeldhura in the Far West) and I’m excited to share this beautiful country with the rest of our team. For now, I’ll leave you with some Buzzfeed worthy trip highlights. Namaste!!

At our wonderful Newari cooking class.

At our wonderful Newari cooking class.

 5 Things to Never Do Around Monkeys

  • Eat. Seriously, they will steal everything and you will be hungry.
  • Ride bicycles past them quickly. Apparently, you will invoke a terrifying hissing sound.
  • Take their picture. They will smell your weakness for dumb tourist souvenirs and exploit it.
  • Give them your “empty” bottles. Unless you want that last half an ounce sprayed all over your shirt as they proceed to turn the bottle into their new favorite chew toy game.
  • Hiss at them to go away. I’m looking at you, army guy at the airport. Not helping, they’re just getting angry.

 8 Things to Buy in Nepal

  • Tiny Buddhas. Statues for all your friends and family so they know how worldly you are!
  • Prayer flags. To decorate your neighbors cubicle.
  • Tiny Buddhas.
  • Yak wool shawls. Mostly because they’re all on sale during the summer (bargain!).
  • Tiny Buddhas.
  • Anything Kama Sutra related. Seriously, you can get anything.
  • Tiny Buddhas. (You can really never have too many.)
  • Singing Bowls. For the healing powers, and to distract people in meetings.

August 26, 2014 One Golden Truth

By Jessi Hanson, M&E Manager

In the last decade of working in international development, I have learnt one golden truth: Trust your staff on the ground to know best!  The international

Thibo, a Technician, contributes to a team session editing the Scorecard, in Benin

Thibo, a Technician, contributes to a team session editing the Scorecard, in Benin

development world is made up of usually two groups working together (hopefully in harmony) on a variety of projects in sectors that combat poverty, empower marginalized people, and aim to improve their quality of life.  These two groups typically include: international consultants or international staff, and national staff.  The first group consists of people from countries like the United States, Canada, England, or Japan, who often started out doing small volunteer stints abroad, maybe even worked in Peace Corps or the VSO.  Most later got a degree in a sector like education or public health, or studied international development and international relations.    They might have lived a few years abroad and authentically contributed to a few projects in the field, but a great majority work out of the main offices in cities like: Washington, D.C., London, or New York, and travel from time to time to advise or oversee projects in country.  We (and I humbly include myself as one) often get endearingly referred to as the gringos, muzungus, the weepoos.

The second group of development workers, the national staff, typically are from the country or region in which they are working, spend long days each week in field, speak the local language, and have a better understanding of the people that organization labels its ‘beneficiaries.’  They are the knowledge on the ground, the insight to the cultural contextual reality, and more often than not, have double the experience level and management expertise than us international

staff.

Get the red pen out!  A national team member records his recommended changes

Get the red pen out! A national team member records his recommended changes

It was a wonderful moment to see on one of my first trips to Benin, how much every international staff member recognized this ‘golden truth’ without ever specifically stating it.  It was demonstrated in their actions, the way they collaborated on decisions, and the thoughtful manner they spoke about our Benin teammates.  We, at VaxTrac, work hard on a variety of project initiatives to ensure our International Office and National Office have equitable inputs and decision making power.  It is also something we are working to instill in our monitoring and evaluation practices.

One example was on our last trip to Benin, in June.  We worked to develop a new monitoring tool, which we named the ‘VaxTrac Digital System Scorecard’, which assessed the use and capacity development of the health workers who we trained to use the VaxTrac digital system in clinics on a frequent basis.  For most of our health workers, the VaxTrac system is the first time that they ever turned on a computer or entered data using a keyboard; so it is pretty important that we track their progress with using this system, and in a way, that we can give feedback to them and measure over all our clinics where trainees are succeeding or need more guidance.

Pascal, our Field Supervisor, tests out the tool in a clinic

Pascal, our Field Supervisor, tests out the tool in a clinic

Developing a good monitoring tool can take many months if done right, and this time was no different.  As far back as January, we worked collaboratively with our Africa Regional Manager, Fidele, to draft the concept of a scorecard that would work in the local environment.  Next, our team in the USA researched and drafted a first version of the Scorecard.  It went back and forth several times via email to our different teams before we felt we almost had it.  On the June trip, we got the entire Benin team together in a room, projected the Scorecard on the screen, and watched sat back as Fidele led his national team to dissect the tool to perfection.  It took over two long hours, and then even more.  They picked it apart, reshaped boxes, scraped bits we in the US thought made sense.  And in the end, after several days of further pilot testing in the field and running the drafted tool by the health workers themselves to see their thoughts about the tool, we had a set product.

It takes a concerted level of humility, trust, and respect for your teammates to let a favorite pet product go for collaborative editing.  But follow the ‘Gold Rule’.  As an international staff member, I try to remind myself everyday to trust the expertise, vision and understanding that my national team members have for something we will apply in what is ‘their world’.   In the end, when we work alongside the best national team, we can do that, and know in the end, the vision is even brighter and will yield just not a better product but promote a sense of community even across oceans.

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