AIDS activists use WC to spread message

AIDS activists use WC to spread message

Published Apr. 20, 2010 8:05 p.m. ET

For health workers, South Africa's World Cup isn't just about soccer. It's the right time for action against the deadly scourge of AIDS.

As this soccer-mad nation celebrates the African debut of the sport's biggest tournament, activists plan to take advantage of the spotlight to try and stop the spread of the virus - both now and in the future.

"We know when people are partying, sex happens," said Miriam Mhazo, whose independent Society for Family Health provides AIDS virus testing and counseling across South Africa.

A nation of about 50 million, South Africa has an estimated 5.7 million people infected with HIV, more than any other country. After years of official denial and delay, the government last year embarked on an anti-AIDS drive, vowing to halve new infections and ensure that 80 percent of those who need them have access to AIDS drugs by 2011.

Right to Care, one of the nation's largest private providers of AIDS treatment, counseling and testing, seized on an item that no South African soccer fan would be without: the plastic horns known as vuvuzelas.

The group's vuvuzelas are bright red with a message in white to "make noise for HIV!" - a plea to break the silence and stigma surrounding AIDS. The blaring horn is perfect for the task.

Right to Care is selling its vuvuzelas for 20 rand (about $3), using the proceeds to fund AIDS treatment for the poor. The group's mobile testing units will be at stadiums and other places fans gather.

Soccer stars also have been pulled in. David Beckham, after meeting HIV-positive pregnant women and new mothers at a Cape Town clinic in his capacity as UNICEF goodwill ambassador, said one of the counselors told him more men need to support their partners to get treatment and care.

"I hope that I can do my bit to help promote this message ... and that men out there hear this and do their bit," the trend-setting Beckham said.

UNICEF is just one of the U.N. agencies using the World Cup as a platform. For the tournament, the U.N. will debut a song performed by stars across Africa that will touch on a range of goals, including fighting AIDS, hunger and poverty. Kiyo Akasaka, the U.N. communications chief, said he hoped to hear soccer fans singing along before World Cup matches.

"We'd like to have a song like 'We Are the World,"' Akasaka said on a visit to South Africa. "The World Cup is a great opportunity. The people of the world will look at the people of Africa, of South Africa, through the global media. Whatever message is coming out of South Africa will be distributed so widely."

Mhazo said South Africans are "very celebrity conscious."

"You use celebrities to talk about important issues, and people stop and listen," Mhazo said.

Nike is working with Bono, who persuaded a range of major retailers to sell T-shirts and shoes and donate proceeds to AIDS and other global health projects. Nike's contribution to the (RED) project, launched months before the World Cup, are red shoe laces.

"I think you'll see those laces on the pitch," Charlie Denson, president of Nike, said in an interview in a Johannesburg Nike shop where the trendy decor included a clear plastic pot of condoms from which customers can help themselves.

FIFA is weighing in with Football for Hope centers, where young people will be drawn in by playing fields and after-school activities, and then be given sex education and AIDS prevention messages.

The South African government will distribute free condoms, some donated by Britain, at hotels where World Cup fans were expected to stay.

AIDS isn't the only cause on the World Cup health agenda. Campaigners against malaria, which kills 1 million people a year, have persuaded FIFA to include in halftime entertainment at the stadiums a video message about using bed nets and donating to buy nets and malaria medication for impoverished Africans.

It's not a competition among diseases, said Christina Vilupti-Barrineau, manager of the United Against Malaria campaign that brings together international aid, development and health organizations. Vilupti-Barrineau said that the overall goal is to strengthen health systems in Africa to better cope with malaria, AIDS and other crises.

And Herve Verhoosel, spokesman for the U.N. Roll Back Malaria agency, said football was key to the effort.

"FIFA has more members than the United Nations," Verhoosel said of the governing body's 208 soccer associations, compared to the U.N.'s 192. "That shows you the power of FIFA, and the power of football."