'Prevention' was the watchword of the third FIFA Medical Conference, which took place ahead of the FIFA Congress. Medical representatives and leaders of FIFA’s 209 member associations gathered in Zurich for two days of exchange and discussion on the latest scientific advances related to football and health.
Reflecting the work of FIFA Medical Assessment and Research Centre (F-MARC), the focus of the discussions was on the measures to be adopted across all member associations to prevent some of the major health threats for our sport. Prevention of injuries on the pitch, prevention of sudden cardiac arrests, prevention of doping to name a few. Going a step further, participants also discussed the unique potential of football as a tool for the improvement of public health.
The recent tragic death of two football players in Belgium gave a sense of urgency to the issue of sudden cardiac arrest. The chairman of FIFA’s Medical Committee Dr. Michel D’Hooghe, himself from Belgium, was particularly sensitive to the problem.
"In cases of possible cardiac arrests in conditions where a player falls down without any specific reason, without any contact, the doctor may intervene directly on the field without waiting for the authorisation of the referee," Dr. D'Hooghe said. "You know that in such a situation each minute is important and an immediate intervention can be life-saving."
FIFA has taken a number of measures to tackle this pressing issue. Medical examinations are conducted prior to all FIFA competitions to identify those who are predisposed towards cardiac issues. In addition, F-MARC has developed a FIFA Emergency Medical Bag, including an automated external defibrillator (AED), which can become a life-saving device in case of incident on the pitch. All FIFA member associations were provided in 2013 with an emergency bag and the conference in Zurich was the occasion to stress the urgent necessity for such equipment to become standard at all football matches.
"On the basis of recommendations and input from team doctors and FIFA associations in 2006 the FIFA Pre-Competition Medical Assessment (PCMA) was started and defined," Germany's team doctor Prof. Tim Meyer said. "PCMA is definitely important to prevent sudden cardiac death in football players, because some diseases can be detected early enough. FIFA goes clearly beyond what's recommended by the big associations."
Since its establishment in 1994, under the chairmanship of Prof. Jiri Dvorak, F-MARC has conducted a number of scientific studies and developed innovative programmes to tackle health issues. The regular practice of the complete warm-up programme 'FIFA 11+' can reduce injuries by up to 50 per cent. The scheme has been successfully implemented in a number of member associations, including FIFA World Cup™ champions Germany, and will be further extended.
Moreover, seeing that football itself can be a fantastic tool for improving general health, F-MARC progressively moved from a concept of 'Medicine for Football' to 'Football for Health'.
"Last year we already used the very well established system of the FIFA 11 for health using the power of football to tackle the epidemic of Ebola in western Africa," Prof. Dvorak said. "With our African colleagues we designed very simple messages to prevent the contamination or the dissemination of the Ebola virus in the three most affected countries. Together with the World Bank we created very simple posters and created video clips that were made on national television and on national radio. This was an example of how to use the popularity of football to help emergency situations. Meanwhile, Ebola disappeared and we think that we have at least, humbly and jointly with different organisations, contributed to the elimination of the virus in the west African countries."
Launched as part of FIFA’s medical legacy to Africa on the occasion of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, 'FIFA 11 for Health' was then extended to Asia and Latin America and is now being introduced in the Caribbean and Europe. Five years after its launch, more than 200,000 children in 20 countries have benefited from the programme. Studies published in well-respected scientific journals have proven it has achieved a significant increase in children’s health awareness.
"Some of the benefits of the FIFA 11 for Health programme include physical education becoming more relevant in schools," Dr. Prince Pambo, National Project Leader in Ghana, said. "School sports given a boost with the arrival of FIFA kits, massive increases in school attendance and the programme exposed a number of potential public health concerns in Ghana, including childhood obesity."
Finally, the Medical Conference was an opportunity to discuss with all member associations the latest advances in the fight against doping. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Secretary General David Howman underlined the long term collaboration of FIFA and WADA and the introduction of new measures such as the biological profile of athletes program.
"WADA's major role is to protect the rights of the clean athlete so that all those clean athletes can have full confidence in the global anti-doping system," Howman said. "This was the first team sport program (Brazil 2014) where every athlete who attended the World Cup was tested. Everyone was tested for the purpose of the profile that was then fed into the laboratory in Lausanne to create the passports for the players. That is very significant for FIFA and WADA."
Prof. Dvorak took this occasion to announce the introduction, in collaboration with the laboratory of Cologne, of innovative anti-doping tests to detect genetic doping at the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015.
"We have the possibility to analyse the small, interfering ribonucleic acid which is on the WADA prohibited list and we performed the first tests in the laboratory in Cologne," Prof. Dvorak said. "We are not testing all the players like we did in the World Cup in Brazil. We are testing selected teams and we go on the quality including, the genetic testing in the fight against doping."