06/02/2015 10:08 GMT | Updated 07/04/2015 06:59 BST

2015 Africa Cup of Nations: Competitors on the Pitch, but United Against Malaria


The Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) is always an exciting time for those following African football, and the 2015 tournament - set to come to a close in Equatorial Guinea this Sunday - has been no exception. Over the past several weeks, fans have tuned in from around the world as 16 teams from across the continent have competed for one of the most coveted titles in the sport: AFCON Champion. We've seen impassioned players and fans, exceptional skill, and fierce competition that has resulted in some 70 goals scored in all and incredible victories and upsets.

And now, in the final days of the Confederation of African Football's (CAF) flagship tournament, we're down to the final two: Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana. With two of the tournament's most accomplished players going up against each other, all eyes will undoubtedly be watching closely what André Ayew (Ghana) and Gervinho (Cote d'Ivoire) skillfully do on the pitch this Sunday. But perhaps the more interesting story is what these two - and others - are doing together off the pitch for a far greater cause.

While all of the tournament's players have had their eyes sternly on the championship, several of them - including Gervinho, André Ayew, Seydou Keita (Mali) and Nikolas N'koulou (Cameroon) - came together to focus on another goal: to rid their home continent of malaria.

With United Against Malaria (@UAMalaria), a campaign of the Roll Back Malaria (RBM) Partnership (@RollBackMalaria) once again named as an official social cause of AFCON - these players have helped disseminate life-saving messages of malaria prevention and treatment to their millions of fans in some of the most malaria-burdened communities around the continent - including their home nations. The below PSA - which was produced specifically for the African market and was distributed through pan-African channels thanks to the engagement of channels like Canal+ and SuperSport, as well via social media and in select tournament stadiums - has been viewed upwards of 80 000 times to date, helping to spark conversation and encourage positive behaviour change.

Thanks in large part in increased financing and the scale-up of interventions that have increased access to long-lasting insecticide treated nets (LLINs), rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) and top-line antimalarial drugs, we've seen tremendous progress against malaria in recent years. In Africa specifically - where some 90 percent of global malaria deaths occur - we've seen malaria death rates reduce by nearly 55 percent since 2000, and by 58 percent in children under five.

But this progress is fragile. Despite progress, malaria continues to claim the life of one child every minute. That's roughly 90 children - many dreaming of one day reaching the ranks of their favourite footballers - dying in the time it takes to play one regulation football match. Every year in Africa, it's estimated that there are more than 160 million cases of malaria.

These cases don't just cause sickness and sometimes death; they keep children out of school and parents out of work, hindering the future socio-economic development of the African continent. Today, it's estimated that this preventable and treatable disease causes an estimated minimum of US $12 billion each year in lost productivity alone.

Regardless of the final score this Sunday, Gervinho and Ayew have both proven to be true champions - both as competitors on the pitch, and UAM teammates off it.

As AFCON comes to a close, the clock continues to tick for those in the grips of sickness and death due to malaria across Africa. So, as the final whistle sounds and a new champion is named on Sunday evening, let us join together and continue working boldly to kick malaria out of Africa once and for all.

Continued progress will require a strong team, but UAM reminds us that we all have a role to play - whether footballers, broadcasters or CAF executives - and that when we work together, we can achieve incredible, lasting impact for a greater Africa.