Three players from England's Manchester United Football Club have joined forces with UNICEF for a multi-media AIDS awareness advertising campaign in Sierra Leone. From VOA's London news center, Tendai Maphosa has the details.  

Africans love their football. English Premiership games are followed closely, and the players are household names on the continent. It may be off-season now, with players taking a rest. But, starting Saturday, Sierra Leonean football fans will see some of their heroes on billboards and hear them on radio and television.

"Hello, I am Ryan Giggs, and I play for Manchester United. We are working with UNICEF to bring you in Sierra Leone this message about HIV and AIDS," says one ad.

Ryan Giggs is one of the three Manchester United players who have lent their voices and images to an AIDS awareness campaign aimed at young Sierra Leoneans.

Speaking with VOA from Freetown, UNICEF representative Geert Cappelaere says that the joint campaign is part of a multi-pronged effort to make young people more aware of the growing threat of HIV and AIDS. Cappelaere says UNICEF has been building partnerships with religious and traditional leaders, and has now turned to sports to bring the message home.

"Soccer is definitely the best medium," he said. "It is the most popular sport in Sierra Leone and definitely Manchester United is the most popular international team here. If you walk around, you will see young people walking around in Manchester United T-shirts. So, that's why we really want to use the popularity, the exposure that Manchester United has and the power, the authority that players like Ryan Giggs or Rio Ferdinand or Patrice Evra have here in this country."
UNICEF says that, although the HIV prevalence in Sierra Leone is only about 1.5 percent, young people face a growing risk of HIV and AIDS. Since 2002, UNICEF says, the country has seen a 75 percent increase in new HIV infections. Despite this, only 17 percent of young people understand how to protect themselves against the virus.

"Hello I am Rio Ferdinand and I play for Manchester United. We are working with UNICEF to bring you in Sierra Leone this message about HIV and AIDS. I work hard to keep my body healthy, so I can stay at the top of my game. AIDS destroys a healthy body. So, if you want to stay on top of your game, whatever you do in life, protect yourself and your loved ones. Wear a condom. Only you can stop AIDS," says one of the ads.

Manchester United teamed up with UNICEF in 1999 to launch an initiative known as United for UNICEF. To date, the club has raised over four million dollars, which have gone to help over 1.5 million children worldwide.