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Originally published August 4, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 4, 2009 at 12:40 AM

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Soccer stars, Gates Foundation team up to tackle malaria

FC Barcelona, which plays Seattle Sounders FC on Wednesday, is part of a new coalition supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation called United Against Malaria. The coalition is using the spotlight of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa to raise awareness and commitments globally to keep up the fight against malaria.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The last time Sanna Nyassi had malaria, he thought he might not live. The symptoms felt familiar — he had a high fever and couldn't hold down food. He'd had a bout with it a few years back at age 16, but this time it was worse.

Fortunately, he got treated and recovered after a month. The following year he was on his way to Seattle, recruited from his native Gambia to play soccer for the newly formed Seattle Sounders FC.

Now he's one of several players raising the issue as part of a growing effort to link the world's most popular sport with humanitarian causes.

Those efforts are being spearheaded by the No. 1 soccer club team in the world and the world's largest charitable foundation.

Nyassi and his team will compete with world champion FC Barcelona on Wednesday in Seattle, but off the field they are united against a common opponent: malaria. Nyassi, 20, worked with Nothing But Nets, a campaign to supply bed nets to people in poor countries.

"I was so lucky to survive it," said Nyassi. "Some people couldn't."

Malaria kills a million people a year, mostly children in Africa. It's caused by a parasite and spread by infected mosquitoes, but bites can be prevented with bed nets and cases treated successfully with prompt medicine.

FC Barcelona player Seydou Keita went back to his native Mali in March to distribute bed nets.

"In Mali many children didn't have mosquito nets, so they became sick from malaria," he said. "Many people died, but it was just accepted as a way of life."

FC Barcelona is part of a new coalition supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation called United Against Malaria, which is using the spotlight of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa to raise awareness and commitments globally to keep up the fight.

For the Gates Foundation, bringing together sports teams, celebrities, corporations and various nonprofit organizations around malaria is a way to harness the power of popular culture to spread its messages.

In May, the Gates Foundation presented the idea for the campaign to the health ministers of African countries at a meeting in Geneva. Later, at dinner, 14 ministers signed a soccer ball saying they were committed to the project.

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"There was a lot of energy and excitement in the room about how it could help move the needle," said Gabrielle Fitzgerald, senior program officer at the Gates Foundation.

The project fit perfectly with FC Barcelona, which had already made humanitarian work part of its brand. In 2006 the club decided to forgo millions of dollars in endorsements to promote UNICEF on its jerseys and donate 1.5 million euros a year to benefit children affected by HIV and AIDS. Barcelona is now getting behind United Against Malaria, starting by wearing the logo on its current U.S. tour.

Marta Segu, executive director of the FC Barcelona Foundation, said a global social conscience has become one of the club's hallmarks.

"The world of football has expanded a lot, and they're making a lot of money. So it's a social responsibility to give back to society what the society has given to the club for 110 years," she said.

"We want to focus on the most needed of society, especially children and youth."

Wednesday's game will feature messages about malaria on the stadium screen. Future plans include a major online effort asking people to "pass the ball" and a project with African telecom operator MTN to get the word out through text messaging, Fitzgerald said.

The World Cup 2010, to be held for the first time on African soil starting next June, coincides with ambitious targets for eradicating malaria. The United Nations goal of universal access to mosquito nets and malaria medicine in Africa by the end of 2010 is a crucial first step to reducing deaths to near zero by 2015.

The Gates Foundation realized many of its partners on malaria had ties to soccer communities, from Malaria No More to the ONE campaign to Nothing But Nets. "We thought if we leveraged all the work there could be a much stronger effort" focused on the 2010 goals, Fitzgerald said.

The Gates Foundation has poured in about $1.4 billion to fight a disease that almost no one paid attention to 10 years ago. Some countries are starting to see success in reducing malaria deaths, and now it's a matter of keeping the commitment.

"People in Africa and around the world are realizing that no person has to die from malaria," said Keita. "My country can be so much stronger without this disease."

"I think soccer is the best way to sensitize people about malaria," Nyassi said. "It's the most popular game in the world. It's going to make a very big difference."

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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