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ZURICH (Reuters) - Footballers are teaming up with governments, companies and international health campaigners to push for action against malaria ahead of next year's World Cup finals in South Africa.
The "United Against Malaria" campaign, which will start next month and run until the end of the World Cup, has won the backing of singer Bono, actress Ashley Judd and philanthropist Melinda Gates, wife of Microsoft founder Bill.
Players such as U.S. captain Landon Donovan and the Ivory Coast team have already said they are behind the campaign, while other prominent footballers backing the movement will be revealed when the campaign is officially launched.
Malaria, which spreads through the bites from infected mosquitoes, kills nearly one million people a year, almost all in Africa where a child dies from the disease every 30 seconds.
The United Nations is trying to get universal access to diagnostic tests, mosquito nets and malaria medicine as part of its bid to cut the number of deaths to zero by 2015.
"Malaria is a disease that you have at household level. You use football to bring messages on prevention measures or how to treat people," Awa Marie Coll-Seck, executive director of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, told Reuters on Saturday.
"This will reach them as they will watch everything on football and if messages are linked to that it will be a very important vehicle for information for us," she said on the sidelines of FIFA's medical conference in Zurich.
The Roll Back Malaria Partnership comprises UN agencies, the World Bank, leading drug makers and aid experts.
Coll-Seck, who was in Zurich to present the campaign to representatives of countries from across the world, said that through football it was possible to gather more support from people in developed countries who could act as donors.
Malaria affects 247 million people each year, with 86 percent of cases in Africa.
Coll-Seck said there was a slight risk players could get malaria when they are in South Africa next summer but this could be reduced by informing people about the disease.
"It's not a part of Africa that has too many cases, but it can happen and people need to be careful," she said.
"We will make it clear why malaria matters. If you look at malaria, at least 40 percent of the world's population is at risk of this disease," Coll-Seck said.
"At the same time, it's a disease which affects particularly children and pregnant women and they are the vulnerable ones in our society. Malaria also has an impact on the economies of countries, on the education of people, on poverty," she said.
"It is also a disease that people can defeat because its treatable and preventable and if you have all this why not use all means, including football, to fight this disease," she said.
FIFA has recently introduced "The 11 for Health" program to teach the youth of Africa about the main diseases affecting the continent within the parameters of football and one of its messages includes using treated bed nets.
Editing by Ken Ferris