Tackling HIV/AIDS and Other Communicable Diseases through Sport

The World Bank states that communicable diseases are the largest causes of child deaths in the world and are significant causes of preventable deaths among adults in the developing world. Together they claim more than an estimated 15 million lives a year, with over 80% of these deaths occurring in developing countries.
Sport and physical education have shown that they can play an effective role in the fight against HIV/AIDS by providing a popular site for preventative education. There is also evidence indicating that involvement in sport may help to slow down the disease in individuals who are HIV positive.

In Africa, there is an overwhelming majority of sport programmes addressing health concerns with a particular focus on HIV/AIDS. Most of the sport-for-HIV prevention programmes centre their activities on sharing information and using sport and games to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS prevention measures to minimise the risk of contracting the virus. None of the sport-based programmes provide direct treatment such as ARVs (anti-retroviral treatment) for HIV positive individuals as part of their activities but rather focus on using sport as a method of mobilising youth, women and at-risk target groups for health promotion, prevention and education.

HIV/AIDS is usually considered a taboo subject and the creation of safe and informal spaces to discuss HIV/AIDS through sport and games allows young people to learn about steps they can take to protect themselves from this disease and to avoid risky behaviour. A study conducted by MercyCorps on two of their programmes in Liberia and south Sudan has shown that HIV/AIDS knowledge and protective attitude levels of the participants were higher after being involved in their programmes.

The role of sports coaches as role models and mentors has proved a vital component of HIV/AIDS prevention programmes using sport. These coaches can also be peers to other young people of a similar age, with whom building relationships of trust can be easier. The programmes that have proven to be most successful in HIV/AIDS prevention have been those that emphasise developing strong leaders and coaches who offer support and guidance.

59% of HIV positive individuals in sub-Saharan Africa are women. A number of actors have attempted to address the impact of this gender bias in HIV/AIDS affected groups through sport. For example, the Go Sisters project in Zambia seeks to provide sports opportunities to girls and young women and to provide factual information pertaining to sexual and reproductive health. The health elements of the Go Sisters ‘message’ goes hand-in-hand with the promotion of young women as peer leaders and coaches for other girls and young women.

The use of sport in addressing HIV/AIDS does not only focus on the epidemiological aspects but the social impact of the disease on individuals and communities as well. The EduSport Foundation was created from the ‘bottom-up’ by individuals directly affected by HIV/AIDS, who not only prioritise providing young people in affected communities with life-saving information on preventative and protective measures but also actively promote the social integration of HIV positive individuals into the community through sport and physical activity.

Sport and other communicable diseases

A number of sports programmes target other communicable diseases in addition to HIV/AIDS. Programmes in countries affected by malaria and tuberculosis, for instance, have also used sport to raise awareness about prevention from these diseases. The Right to Play project called Thailand Migrant SportWorks Project focuses on using sport as a didactical tool to teach children about infectious disease prevention. Experience shows that programmes which aim to show how infection spreads, along with its causes and symptoms are also effective when physical activities and games are used to communicate these ideas. Partnerships between national health agencies and sport-focused organisations have attempted to provide children and young people with ‘active learning’ models in which to better retain and then discuss abstract health concepts.