After six years braving England’s frigid winters, a tropical disease was the last thing Chelsea’s injury-prone striker Didier Drogba thought would keep him on the sidelines of the Premier League.
Since contracting malaria last year, Drogba’s fight against the disease has gone from the Chelsea treatment room to the wilds of West Africa, where he is building a hospital and providing thousands of mosquito nets in an effort to cut the infection rate of one of the world’s biggest killers.
There are 225 million cases a year of malaria, a mosquito-borne disease which can damage the nervous system, kidneys and liver. There were 781,000 deaths due to malaria in 2009, nine out of 10 were in Africa, according to the World Health Organization.
“I had malaria, I know exactly what it feels like and it’s something that I want to stop,” Drogba said on Saturday, handing out hundreds of nets bearing his face to a foundation in Thailand during Chelsea’s Asian tour.
“That’s why we’re giving these nets to kids and people who can’t afford treatment. These are good options, they’re efficient and they save lives.”
Drogba has been active in his native Ivory Coast in raising funds and donating his own sponsorship earnings to building a hospital in the capital Abidjan worth more than $4 million.
The 32-year-old fell ill with malaria in September but continued playing, a decision he said was foolish in retrospect and delayed his recovery.
The towering forward still does not know where he picked up the illness, which the club did not reveal until two months later.
“It was very dangerous and cost me fitness for almost two months,” he said. “But I kept playing, I wanted to help my team, but I really should not have.”
Drogba’s hospital project has been delayed due to a four-month conflict in Ivory Coast that killed thousands of people following an election intended to unite the former French colony that plunged it back into civil war.
The country is now in recovery following April’s ouster by French-backed rebels of former President Laurent Gbagbo, who had refused to cede power. Drogba said he would return to his homeland in the next few weeks to get his hospital project started.
“The situation in Ivory Coast has meant it’s difficult for people to receive treatment, but the country is trying to survive, slowly things should get back to normal,” Drogba said.
“I want this money to go to the right place, to try to help my people and give back to them what they gave to me.
“They’ve always been supporting me, so I really want to help them.”