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Digital Fingerprints Track Kids’ Health

A new study finds that children can be successfully followed by their fingerprints, making an electronic health registry feasible.

This is critical in the developing world, where 2.5 million children die each year from preventable diseases because they have not been vaccinated. Twenty-five million babies don’t receive routine immunizations. And even when they do, paperwork is lost, incomplete or riddled with errors.

Anil Jain is an expert in image recognition at Michigan State University and lead author of the study, recently released in the Proceedings of the International Joint Conference on Biometrics. He thinks digital fingerprint records make sense in countries where health systems are weak.

The tracking approach "has been successfully used for 100 years for adults," he said. "The challenge is, can we do infant recognition based on fingerprints?"

Prints distinct, despite small size

Jain had to work around several problems associated with infant prints to find the answer.

Infants "often suck their fingers," or caregivers coat their hands with oil or lotion, Jain said. A baby’s fingerprint may not be as distinct as an older person’s, "because the finger is of small size and the spacings between the ridges on the finger are not as pronounced."

Jain set up two test sites with optical readers: one in East Lansing, Michigan, and a second in Benin, West Africa. In Michigan, the team collected 1,600 images from 20 children. Each child was matched correctly 98 percent of the time. In Benin, among 70 children and 420 images, the accuracy rate dropped to 75 percent, in part due to conditions at open-air clinics.

Better optical reader needed

Jain was encouraged with the results.

"The fact that we could achieve a high accuracy in East Lansing means that there is a way to capture the fingerprint," he said. "And there was this notion in the broader fingerprint community that, 'Well, children’s fingerprints from zero to 2 years old, or zero to 4 years old, are just not there to be usable.' I think our studies have put that question to rest."

Jain is appealing to businesses for improved optical readers for use with infants, while simultaneously addressing lessons learned in Benin to achieve a higher match rate.

Electronic records can boost vaccine coverage, which in turn saves lives, he said. He expressed hope that his work would lead to a digital registry for monitoring children's health over time.

"You can’t eradicate a disease unless you improve the coverage," he said. "So if the coverage stabilizes, let’s say, at 80 percent, 85 percent, there is still a large number of children who are not being vaccinated."

Tracking "who has been vaccinated, who has received the necessary booster shots so you can do a follow up – that’s the important thing," Jain said.