Princess Astrid: Football is much more than just a game
© Foto-net

HRH Princess Astrid of Belgium is one extremely busy person. Aside from her Royal Family duties and being the mother of five children, she is heavily involved in numerous charitable causes. Princess Astrid nevertheless found the time to visit FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter at the Home of FIFA in Zurich on Thursday. FIFA.com caught up with her to discuss her work as the Special Representative of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, how football can have a social cultural role in society, and what FIFA can do to help.

FIFA.com: What was the purpose of your visit to FIFA?
HRH Princess Astrid: As the Special Representative of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership (RBM), I was honoured to have the opportunity to visit the FIFA offices in Zurich, where I met with President Blatter to discuss FIFA’s commitment to global health issues and in particular malaria. FIFA has provided valuable support to RBM in past years, and I was delighted to have the chance to express my gratitude to Mr Blatter for this and also discuss potential opportunities for continued collaboration between FIFA and RBM, including through its campaigns.

What is your personal relationship to football? How do you see this sport?
I enjoy watching football on TV, and I am glad both my sons play the game. I think football is much more than a game – it promotes team spirit and has the power to influence behaviour and create lasting social change in all corners of the world. People with different ethnic or social backgrounds can find common ground on the playing field and forget about their differences. Regardless of one’s allegiance, I think football has the ability to bring communities together. Our challenge is to harness that unifying power to foster social change and promote messages of hope.

I believe that football has the unique ability to unite communities, promote messages of hope and influence social change.
HRH Princess Astrid of Belgium

What difference do you hope to make as Special Representative for RBM?
I hope that through my work with the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, I am able to raise the profile of malaria on the international agenda, giving those struggling to overcome this disease a voice and galvanizing necessary political will against it. With strong coordination of RBM partners, we’ve made tremendous progress against malaria in recent years, and I hope that my work with RBM can help to further advance progress and decrease the numbers of those suffering from malaria until it is a thing of the past.

What is the current status of global malaria control efforts?
In recent years, we’ve seen significant progress against malaria. We’ve decreased global malaria deaths by 25 per cent since 2001, and 43 countries worldwide have reduced their malaria cases by a minimum of 50 per cent in that same time frame. And, enough insecticide-treated nets were distributed by the end of 2010 to cover nearly 80 per cent of the population at risk in Africa. But still, our successes are partial and fragile. Almost half of the world’s population remains at risk from malaria. Despite unprecedented advances in prevention, diagnostics and treatment, malaria continues to infect approximately 219 million people each year, killing more than 650,000. Our successes need to be replicated across all regions affected by malaria, and they need to be sustained and expanded to prevent malaria from coming back in areas where we’ve eliminated it.

Precisely how do you believe FIFA can help solving this major health issue? 
As the guardian of a sport played by millions around the world, I think FIFA has a tremendous responsibility and opportunity to harness the power of the sport to promote positive messages and social change. I am very impressed with FIFA’s ‘Football for Health’ and ‘11 for Health’ programs, which capitalise on the influence football has to promote healthy behaviours and messages of hope to communities struggling to overcome health issues like malaria and HIV/AIDS. I hope that FIFA and RBM can collaborate on future initiatives to elevate the work that each does to keep communities healthy.

The FIFA President often says football can play a social cultural role in society. Do you also believe in the fact that football is more than just a game?
Absolutely! I believe that football has the unique ability to unite communities, promote messages of hope and influence social change. For example, through RBM’s United Against Malaria campaign (UAM), RBM partners have been able to leverage the power of football to reach more than a billion people through public service announcements and advertising that aired during the 2010 FIFA World Cup and are currently airing with footballers like Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba in more than ten African countries during the Orange African Cup of Nations. Through this engagement, football is reaching big fans in vulnerable communities with messages that will save lives and help them thrive.

Why did you decide to work with the Roll Back Malaria Partnership?
HRH Princess Astrid: I became the Special Representative for the Roll Back Malaria Partnership because I found it unacceptable that so many people suffer and die from such a preventable and treatable disease as malaria. In my work with RBM, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to countries like Zambia, Tanzania and Indonesia where I’ve seen first-hand the devastation of malaria on communities – mothers walking hours with their frail children to seek malaria treatment often unavailable or too expensive; classrooms empty of young minds to teach and fathers burying their children far too young. I’ve also seen the incredible hope that simple, cost-effective solutions – like insecticide-treated nets, indoor spraying with insecticides, accurate diagnostic tests and appropriate treatment – can have. These tools are proven, they are effective, and they are inexpensive investments that could change the course of history for generations. We must work together, now more than ever, to protect these tools.

Why do you care so passionately about malaria?
HRH Princess Astrid: Malaria is especially important to me, because of its particular effect on the world’s most vulnerable – pregnant women and children. Despite incredible advances in recent years, this preventable illness continues to kill a child every minute. Each of those deaths is not just a number; it is a precious life with great potential not realized. And these deaths have incredible economic impact on already struggling communities – in Africa, where 90 per cent of malaria deaths occur, the disease costs an estimated minimum of $12m in lost productivity per year. Malaria is simple to prevent and treat, yet it continues to plunge developing countries further into poverty. My vision for the future includes pregnant mothers giving birth to healthy children, who live to reach their fifth birthdays and complete school uninterrupted by malaria. I believe we can achieve that future, but it will take the investment and commitment of many. I believe it is our responsibility to ensure adequate resources are available so all can live healthy, productive lives, free from malaria.