Twenty years ago, all states were planning or developing immunization information system (IIS) registries, which are confidential systems for collecting data about the population of vaccinated individuals within a geographic area. Today, all 50 states, the District of Columbia and all U.S. territories have at least one regional or local IIS.
These systems serve the vital purpose of enabling healthcare authorities to pinpoint communities whose residents largely have not been vaccinated against diseases so that steps can be taken to address the issue. Their value in promoting community health will only grow when a vaccine for COVID-19 becomes available to help people generate antibodies to fight the virus.
But there are opportunities to leverage these systems in other ways. Being heavily standards-based, they can be the repository of data regarding individuals’ potential immunity to new and deadly viruses based on antibody tests. Antibodies to combat a specific disease are present not only in individuals who were diagnosed with and recovered from that disease, but also likely are present in people who didn’t seek medical help because they were asymptomatic or had such mild symptoms that they didn’t even realize they were infected.
Public health officials can use this data to discover if large numbers of people in a certain area have developed immunities as well as communities where relatively few people have developed immunities. They can then prepare for potentially significant outbreaks there, taking steps such as providing hospitals in the vicinity with necessary healthcare equipment. And, once a vaccine is created, that data could heavily target these communities to raise immunization rates.
Being able to track this information would be of immense help in our current situation, of course, but equally viable for future disease outbreaks for which there is yet no vaccine. Economists and futurists predict by the year 2050, infectious diseases will be the number one killer in the world.
It’s important that the medical community embrace this approach to storing antibody test data. When doctors store patients’ test results exclusively in their own electronic health management (EHR) systems, its shareability and therefore its usability can be limited. That said, similar regulations to those that already exist about obtaining patients’ consent to sharing personal immunization data and ensuring that their private information remains safe in the IIS will be required when it comes to antibody testing data as well.
Hopefully, by coupling antibody testing and immunization together in the same system we will be able to capture knowledge that can help guide us through public health crises to come.