The thought of getting jabbed with a needle raises anxiety in many people, and even fear. It’s a fear — both great and small — that came into sharp relief when tens of millions of people got coronavirus shots. The Journal of Primary Care and Community Health reports that between 11.5 and 66 million adults in America may suffer from needle phobia. And pediatric immunizations come with increased concerns, as both children and their parents can suffer from fear and anxiety. This shared distress may stand in the way of children getting the preventative care they need, and so researchers in Singapore turned to a high-tech solution: virtual reality. 

A recently released study published in the Frontiers In Pediatrics journal examines a 2019 pilot project at a primary care clinic in Singapore in which children were distracted during vaccinations. Wearing VR headsets, children ages 4 to 10 are introduced to Burp, an avatar who asks them to help him power up his crystal tower. To do so, Burp will need to use his magic wand and tap the child’s shoulder… at the very moment they get their injections. A rune on the child’s shoulder activates, allowing magical power to flow to Burp’s tower. 

How did Burp do? Compared to a control group, children who wore the VR headsets had significantly lower levels of anxiety, as measured by the study’s Change in Child’s Fear Scale (CFS). Notably, there was little difference in the pain scores between the two groups, however. In offering an explanation for this discrepancy, researchers point to the fact that the study had a small number of participants, just 30 children. The study also shows that the parents of the children who were given VR headsets had lower anxiety levels than parents of children in the control group. 

Alleviating the anxiety of parents addresses an issue that’s larger than many people might suspect; data from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that 75% of parents wanted to delay immunizations for their children over concerns about discomfort. It’s not unfounded hesitancy; the VR study cites findings that say around 45% of children from the ages of 4 to 6 show serious distress over immunization. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) called vaccine hesitancy one of the Top 10 threats facing global health. 

The study concludes that virtual reality is a safe and effective way to alleviate anxiety in both children and their parents during immunization. So some day soon, Burp and his magic wand may be coming to a VR headset near you.