Malaria charities are targeting the World Cup as a means of highlighting a disease that still claims a child's life every 30 seconds on the African continent.
When England took on the United States on the second day of the tournament last night, the United Against Malaria project kick-started its own campaign to raise awareness in the hope of providing 150 million more mosquito nets by the end of the year.
A raft of top-class international footballers, including Kolo Toure of the Ivory Coast, have suffered from malaria and campaigners are using the month-long jamboree to focus attention on the impact of an illness that still has devastating consequences among Third World populations.
United against Malaria, an umbrella organization of partnerships seeking an end to malaria deaths, is now active in 11 endemic African countries where 91 percent of fatalities occur. Yet even in places where nets are easily accessible, usage can be as low as 50 cent due to lack of education. Campaigners hope that will change after the World Cup, with football providing an unparalled platform for awareness, especially in remote villages in some of the poorest African countries.
"What is so powerful about the World Cup is the sheer size of the global audience and the way in which football resonates across the whole continent," says Sarah Kline, executive director of the charity Malaria No More UK, one of the main global partners of United against Malaria. "The objective is to maximize exposure to a mass audience and to influence governments to prioritise spending on malaria, not least African countries."
Football's world governing body, Fifa, has made great play of the fact that the World Cup is not just about South Africa but Africa as a whole. Kline believes the continent's obsession with football is too good an opportunity to miss in terms of widening the debate.
"Loads of government officials in Africa – health and sport – are interested in football and that helps engage the political leadership. In Ghana, for instance, the national team are talking to people about the importance of protecting themselves against malaria. Using populist messages is the perfect way to get to a broad audience."
Hence the reason why players like Toure – a household name through African football as well as the Premier League – are so important to the cause. Toure has contracted malaria on a number of occasions, even as a professional footballer. He has recovered each time but acknowledges others aren't so lucky.
"It's more serious among children," says Toure, who cost £12m when he moved from Arsenal to Manchester City and will play a key role for the Ivory Coast at the World Cup. "I have known several families back home who have suffered terribly. More children die in Africa as a result of malaria than any other disease. The scale of the problem is huge. In the 90 minutes it takes me to play a football match, 180 children die from malaria."
Whilst the death rate is declining in 38 countries, only eight of those are in Africa. Hence the involvement with UAM with a raft of commercial organisations, big and small, who have discovered the impact of malaria on their profits; from SSB Flour Mills in Tanzania – who found that some 20 percent of staff miss at least a day a month due to malaria – up to Standard Bank who found that in countries where malaria was prevalent, it was costing the company $6m (£4.1m) per year in lost work days alone.
It's no surprise, therefore, that UAM is backed by a number of corporate bodies including the Gates Foundation. But right now the focus is very much on football. Fifa are understood to have endorsed a number of as yet unannounced activities around the World Cup final next month in order to raise awareness. By the time one of the 32 nations taking part in South Africa lifts sport's most coveted trophy on 11 July, Kline hopes the message will have got across. And the message is three-fold: behaviour change, increased government support and, ultimately, more mosquito bed nets with a view to eradicating deaths by 2015.
"Many countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia have made considerable progress," says Kline. "But other countries are less enthusiastic and there are still huge challenges in terms of both money and trained health workers. In the West people think malaria is something we have got rid of. There is also an assumption that there is easy access to medicine. Both these are wrong."
Estimates suggest that 350 million nets would be needed to achieve universal usage. "Right now, the shortfall is around 150 million," says Kline. "A mosquito net costs just £5 including both purchase price and transporation. Children under five and pregnant women are most at risk. The goal is that by the end of this year everyone susceptible to malaria will have access to a net."