Can a Fire-Breathing Dragon Make Cystic Fibrosis Therapy Fun?

Since my son was old enough to hold a video gaming system, he’s been hooked. They’re fun, challenging, and (sometimes) educational. I tell myself that video games may help improve his eye-hand coordination or his concentration. I’m not sure those things are true, but they make me feel better about the amount of time he spends staring into the glow of an electronic device. (Maybe someday he’ll turn those skills into a career as a surgeon or architect!)

But according to the New Zealand Herald newspaper, a new game called BreatheHero, developed by Dr. Cass Byrnes and her team at the University of Auckland’s Starship Children’s Hospital is demonstrating a positive effect children with cystic fibrosis (CF).

If the initial findings of the study are an indication, a new video game could significantly improve the quality of life for kids with cystic fibrosis.

Like other games, BreatheHero is animated with vividly colorful characters and an engaging objective. Players are taken on an adventure where they can test their gaming skills and rack up points. And while they’re having fun, the game encourages young gamers to do their cystic fibrosis breathing exercises correctly as it tracks their progress.

Physiotherapy helps people with CF clear their lungs of mucus build up in order to breathe easier. For most people with CF, various practices of therapy are part of their daily routine. But compliance is a problem for kids who would rather be doing just about anything else than breathing into a nebulizer, so Bryne’s team created the game to make physiotherapy more fun.

According to the team’s findings, less than half of children and adolescents follow their prescribed therapy. The researchers surveyed children with CF and discovered that kids ranked physiotherapy “worse than going to the hospital, having intravenous antibiotics, or even having cystic fibrosis.”

In the new game, kids pretend they are a dragon blowing fire to gain points. As they blow into a device that and score points for duration and technique. When they complete a session, they’re rewarded with the same sense of gratification that my son gets when he completes a challenging level of Mario Karts or Zelda. Of course, for kids with CF, it’s even a bigger win because every day they are able to comply with therapy is a day they breathe easier and stay healthier.

The game is still undergoing clinical trials, and the New Zealand team hopes to test it on a larger group of children with CF soon.

According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, more than 30,000 people are living with cystic fibrosis in the U.S., and more than 70,000 worldwide. Most are diagnosed by the age of two. So providing a therapy that’s fun and engaging for young children could help them grow up to be healthier adults — and maybe even become surgeons or architects too.

To learn more about CF, check out our partners Cystic Life and Strawfie Challenge.

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