THE BLOG

Football Fever: Leveraging the Power of Sport to Fight Malaria

12/07/2014 21:54 BST | Updated 10/09/2014 10:59 BST

With the World Cup drawing to a close in Brazil, football fever shows no sign of cooling before the final whistle blows this Sunday evening and a new champion is named.

Over the past month, the famous tournament has reminded us that football has an undeniable ability to unite communities and transcend cultures. It also has the incredible power to fight a far more powerful fever caused by a preventable and treatable disease: malaria.

United Against Malaria (UAM) - an initiative of the Roll Back Malaria (RBM) Partnership and groups like Malaria No More, the Johns Hopkins University Center for Communications Programs, Speak Up Africa and KYNE - is a good example of this. Founded in the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, UAM leverages the power of football in Africa to share life-saving malaria messages with communities across the continent, all the while engaging footballers and confederations, political leaders and private sector executives to help build momentum and unlock additional resources.

Football icons like Didier Drogba (Cote d'Ivoire), Samuel Eto'o (Cameroon), Gervinho (Cote d'Ivoire) and the Ayew brothers (Ghana) have all lent their influence to the effort and joined forces with UAM. Most recently, these stars and others encouraged their countrymen to protect themselves and their families from malaria through mass communications initiatives that saw billboards erected in 16 countries and 23,000 radio and TV spots broadcast on 34 pan-African and national channels, reaching an estimated 1 billion viewers with life-saving messages during the OrangeTM Africa Cup of Nations in January 2013.

And Drogba continued to show his passion on and off the pitch during the World Cup with a malaria-related PSA produced by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), in cooperation with RBM.

It's no secret that these regional and global occasions provide an unrivaled marketing opportunity, but it's important to remember that they also provide a platform through which to spark dialogue that can influence decision makers and positively shape health behavior.

Take, for example, the fact that the World Cup saw more than 10 malaria-endemic countries competing in Brazil this month, including the host country. 4 qualifying teams that traveled to South America for the tournament - Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria - are included among the 20 highest-burden countries in the world that together accounted for 80% of global deaths in 2012.

Behind each of these teams is a nation of fans tuning in from afar to cheer on their local heroes through the tournament - an audience held captive by the airwaves broadcasting the match through their radio or TV. With UAM, we've found that these same airwaves provide the perfect tool through which to share life-saving health messages, and our research has shown that it's helped to positively influence behavior related to malaria prevention and treatment.

Tremendous progress has been made against malaria in recent years, with death rates decreasing by more than 40% globally and almost 50% in Africa alone since 200. Collective efforts have helped avert more than 3 million malaria-related deaths between 2001 and 2012.

Victory is on the horizon, but the clock is ticking, and continued progress will take all of us working together to help move the ball forward to beat malaria once and for all. Thanks to the commitment of many governments, foundations, researchers, UN agencies and private companies, not to mention the football stars mentioned already, we have a more than capable team.

The football industry has shown incredible commitment to the fight against malaria from the very top, with FIFA's President, Sepp Blatter, supporting the UAM campaign and the football's broader role in health education efforts. This commitment is also true at the regional level, with the Confederation of African Football placing malaria at the top of its corporate priorities and naming UAM as an official social cause of the 2013, 2015 and 2017 AFCON tournaments in South Africa, Morocco and Libya respectively. I applaud FIFA, CAF and the many other confederations and industry partners that have recognized the positive influence football can have on social development issues like malaria, and I congratulate them for their bold leadership.

The World Cup will come to a close on Sunday, but our fight against this killer disease will continue. Despite tremendous progress that has seen death rates decreasing by more than 40% globally and almost 50% in Africa alone since 2000, almost half of the world's population is still at risk from malaria. Each year there are nearly 210 million infections estimated around the world, killing nearly 630,000 and perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty that ravages so many communities.

Now, more than ever, we must work together - across sectors - to find innovative opportunities for collaboration to expand reach, increase efficiencies and maximize impact. Through UAM, we've seen that sport can help bring politics, business and health together in a truly unique way. The football community has proven the power of sport to aid in efforts to accelerate progress against health targets; I hope others will follow suit by including malaria - or other important health issues - in their corporate social responsibility efforts.

As we huddle together around our TVs and radios this weekend to celebrate the skills of our favorite players in the final matches of the tournament, I encourage us to also take a moment to remember those in so many areas of the world whose football dreams are cut short by the preventable bite of a malaria-infected mosquito. Regardless of our football skills, we all have a role to play in the fight against malaria - every bit of support, whether from the pitch, the bench or the stands, has the potential to change the course of history for generations to come.

We have a long match ahead of us, but if we work together, we can come out on top.