While the world faces down the COVID-19 pandemic, around the globe others are also facing similarly prevalent and deadly diseases, such as malaria.

Ahead of World Malaria Day on April 25, Young Papua New Guineans are scoring goals in the fight to become malaria-free, and using those skills to now take on COVID-19.

The mosquito-borne disease has been an ever-present issue in Papua New Guinea, with the country having committed to eradicating it by 2030.

Between 2014 and 2017, the country saw an almost nine-fold increase in malaria cases, with about 1 in 10 Papuan New Guinean children under five afflicted, while in some regions, like Sandaun in the country’s north-west, the ratio is as high as 1 in 5 children.

But PNG-led programs are working to educate and inspire children, through sport, to reverse these malaria trends.

PNG boy holding soccer ball

SKILLZ PNG are giving children the knowledge and capabilities they need to battle malaria.

At the Hohola Demonstration Primary School in PNG’s capital Port Moresby, students took it to the pitch – led by the Grassroot Soccer program – to develop skills to stop mosquitoes and malaria.

“Malaria has been one of the country’s biggest health challenges,” said Sam Maila, a project coordinator for SKILLZ PNG, a facilitator for the Grassroot Soccer program.

“We needed to educate young people about their health risks and at the same time, empower them to make better decisions in their lives. That’s what the program is all about.”

Mr Maila said they use soccer and activities-based education to help convey important health messages, such as how to properly use mosquito netting, as well as disease awareness and sanitation.

Grassroot Soccer, which is supported with funding from the ExxonMobil Foundation, began in PNG in 2017 and operates alongside partner organisations in more than 50 countries, intending to improve youth health awareness through innovative, sports-based education.

To date, in partnership with ExxonMobil, Grassroot Soccer’s “SKILLZ” program has taught more than 285,000 students about malaria prevention, testing and treatment, and distributed more than 18,000 mosquito nets around the world.

SKILLZ PNG also works with street children and has now expanded to PNG communities outside of Port Moresby, including the Southern Highlands with the support of groups such as the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), Southstar Sports Development Association (SSDA) and Pacific Sports Media and Marketing (PSMM).

“We’re connecting with the children in a fun and engaging way to ensure these messages are not only retained but also acted upon,” Mr Maila said.

“In this way, it isn’t just about promoting health messages; it also teaches children how to engage with each other.”

In the wake of COVID-19,  these malaria programs are being adapted to meet this new challenge.

The health messages are being transformed to raise awareness on handwashing and hygiene, social distancing and how young people can cope during isolation.

Hohola teacher Hannah Lelori said the impact of these programs was immediately noticeable.

“The children seem to have more respect for each other, and they communicate better after the program,” she said.

“Having a program like this is very important. We need assistance as teachers, and the way the coaches impart knowledge while also bringing in an element of fun is a great way of ensuring that long-lasting learning can take place.”

ExxonMobil’s focus on malaria prevention also extends to the workforce, with malaria awareness programs across all the company’s sites in PNG.

On World Malaria Day, groups such as Grassroot Soccer and SKILLZ PNG are working to ensure that it will soon be kicking goals in the fight against malaria.


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