OLYMPIC LONG DISTANCE RUNNERS SUPPORT
ROLL BACK MALARIA
In the time it takes one Olympic athlete to complete that gruelling test of human endurance, the marathonaround 2 hours 12 minutes79,200 people will have contracted malaria. Ten people, many of them children, come down with malaria every single second. More than one million people die from it each year world wide.
But malaria, a preventable disease, now has serious competition. A global movement, called Roll Back Malaria (RBM), is steadily advancing and hopes to beat back the disease. Its aim is to halve the number of malaria-induced deaths by 2010. To reach this goal, it seeks to increase the numbers of people with access to effective malaria interventions, improving both prevention and treatment, and by supporting research into better drugs and a possible vaccine.
A number of African Olympic athletesincluding gold medal winnershave now added their support to Roll Back Malaria at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. One of these is the Tanzanian Olympic marathon runner Mr Fokasi Wilbroad Fullah, currently in the final stages of training for his event.
"It is important, while the eyes of the world are on us, to remind everyone that malaria continues to blight the people of Africa," says Mr Fullah, who contracted the life-threatening disease in his native Tanzania as a child.
"Roll Back Malaria needs more people from around the world to support its important work. The challenge of Olympic athletes is to take home medals. But, the challenge for many people is surviving malaria," he added.
Mr Fullah was born in 1970 in the Babati Arusha region in Tanzania. He won a silver medal at the 1999 All African Games held in Johannesburg, South Africa. His best performance in a marathon is 2 hours 12 minutes. He will compete on the last day of the Sydney Olympics on Sunday, October 1.
The fastest ever certified marathon run in history was accomplished by Mr Khalid Khannouchi, who was born in Morocco and recently became a United States citizen. His time was 2:05:42.
The official marathon distance is the odd 42.195 km. It was in 1908 that this distance was first used as a favour to the British Royal family. The starting point was placed on the grounds of Windsor Castle so that the children of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandraone of whom was celebrating a birthdaycould watch the beginning. The finish line was 26 miles away in the new 70,000 seat White City Stadium. Once inside the stadium, the runners ran an additional 385 yards around the track with the finish directly in front of the box of Queen Alexandra. This random distance of 26 miles, 385 yards quickly became the standard distance for all marathons.
Most adults in Tanzania, like Mr Fullah, have had malaria at some point in their lives. "We need more education and better access to treatments in our villages and communities," urges Mr Fullah.
According to Mr Fullah, "Malaria has a very negative impact on the sport performance of professional athletes." Persons in all professions are hindered.
The disease effectively imposes a huge tax on affected communities in terms of human and economic development. Wage earners are not able to work, lands cannot be used for farming, school attendance drops and learning capacity of children is hindered. The direct and indirect costs of malaria in Africa are in excess of $2 billion a year.
"The challenges of rolling back malaria and marathon running are similar; they both need dedication, a sustained effort and endurance," says acting RBM Project Manager Dr Awash Teklehaimanot. "We wish Mr Fullah and the other African marathon runners good luck for this highly challenging Olympic sport."
Gold medal winners from Ethiopia, Mr Haile Gebreselassie (Sydney 2000, Atlanta 1996) and Ms Derartu Tulu (Barcelona 1992), both 10,000 metre runners, sent a message to Geneva pledging support to Roll Back Malaria. The latter will compete tomorrow. Their compatriot, gold medal-winning marathon runner (Atlanta 1996) Ms Fatuma Roba, is also backing the fight against malaria. She placed ninth in her event in Sydney.
African countries have now finalized country level strategies to Roll Back Malaria. Strategies in malaria endemic countries include initiatives to encourage wider use of insecticide treated mosquito nets, systems to prevent and rapidly respond to epidemics and programs to ensure prompt diagnosis and treatment of the disease.
Such interventions work. In Vietnam, for example, bednets and effective drugs have reduced malaria deaths by 98 percent, from 4,500 deaths in 1990 to 100 in 1997. They are also very cost-effective. Much activity is targeted at pregnant women and children under five years of age who are most at risk of contracting the disease.
Because of its large geographic scope, the unmet challenge of developing an effective vaccine and the cleverness of the pathogen in developing resistance to available treatments, malaria has been one of the most challenging diseases for the public health community to control. Malaria quickly rebounded from the mass insecticide spraying campaigns in the 1950s-60s. Today, global warming and climate change are ushering malaria into previously unscathed areas. The hardy plasmodium-carrying Anopheles mosquito can even survive transcontinental flights aboard aircraft and infect people who live in temperate zones.
The Roll Back Malaria movement, facilitated by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners, was launched at the request of African countries who demanded increased progress in controlling the disease. This growing public health movement includes a wide range of partners: Governments of endemic countries, United Nations agencies, development banks, bilateral development agencies, non-governmental organizations, research groups, civil society and individuals.
During the Sydney Olympic Games, athletes from Ethiopia, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania joined Roll Back Malaria and helped to raise awareness about the disease.
The marathon originated from an ancient war story, the veracity of which scholars debate. In the legend, the 40 km between Marathon to Athens, Greece was run by the messenger soldier Pheidippides in 490 BC to report success in battle of the Athenians and their allies over King Darius of Persia. According to the Greek satirist Lucian, writing an account some 600 years later, Pheidippides said, upon reaching Athens, "Joy to you, we've won!" He immediately fell to the ground and died.
In Antiquity, the marathon was not a part of the sports competitions. Two Frenchmen had the idea to make the long race an event in the first ever modern Olympics in 1896. A silver "Marathon Cup" was offered to whomever would win such the race. Today, champion marathon runners can be rewarded with large sums of money for a win. For example, after his victory, and world best performance in the 1999 Chicago Marathon, Mr Khalid Khannouchi received US $165,000.
Athletes desperate to win the tough human endurance test have sometimes resorted to creative (not to mention, illegal) schemes to win. According to the International Amateur Athletic Foundation (IAAF), during the St. Louis Olympic Games in 1904, one athlete took a lift from a car before entering the stadium on foot as the winner. He was disqualified in favour of another athlete who was injected with strychnine sulphate in the middle of the race.
One runner's natural talent made him a winner with no preparation. Emil Zátopek, who won 5,000 and 10,000 meter races at the 1952 Olympics, ran the first marathon of his career at those Games. He won.
Only two athletes have ever won this Olympic event twice: Waldemar Cierpinski (1976 and 1980) from the former German Democratic Republic; and Abebe Bikila, an Ethiopian who won the marathon in the 1960 Rome Olympics bare-footed, and four years later won at the Tokyo Olympics.
Major marathons now take place in Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, Fukuoka, New York, Rotterdam and Tokyo. A single marathon can draw almost 40,000 runners.
You can find out more about getting involved in Roll Back Malaria by visiting the web site: www.rbm.who.int
Further information: Roll Back Malaria Media Officer, Mr Andy Seale, can be contacted at WHO in Geneva; Telephone: +41 22 791 3670; E-mail: email@example.com or Mobile phone: +41 79 217 3476. All WHO Press releases, Fact Sheets and Features, as well as other information on the subject, can be found on the WHO web site: www.who.int
The athletes can be contacted via the central switchboard at the Olympic Village on +61 2 811 35222. Photographs of Mr Fullah wearing a Roll Back Malaria t-shirt at the Sydney Olympic Village can be e-mailed or sent on request.