Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Trending - ESPN Playbook [Print without images]

Friday, March 15, 2013
WWE Divas raise awareness of malaria

By Bill Speros
Special to ESPN.com

Natalya
Visiting refugees in Rwanda was a life-changing experience for WWE Diva Natalya, who demonstrated John Cena's signature "You Can't See Me" move to these children.
WWE Diva Natalya admits she didn’t know much about the impact of malaria on refugees in Africa and elsewhere before she and fellow Diva Alicia Fox visited Rwanda.

Now she won’t stop talking about it.

“This is the first time WWE has done something like this. We’re able to use our platform for an important cause -- to bring more awareness about malaria and save people’s lives,” Natalya (Natalie Neidhart) told Playbook this week. “We put a lot smiles on people’s faces.”

The late February trip was part of a joint venture between NothingButNets.net, the United Nations Foundation and WWE to raise awareness about the mosquito-borne disease and the simplest step that can be taken to prevent its spread, namely the use of netting to protect people while they sleep. “These nets are critical to saving people’s lives. Now, I want to do more,” she said.

The bed nets, which can be purchased through a $10 donation to Nothing But Nets, allow the people in the camps, mainly women and children, the chance to sleep without the fear of being bitten by a mosquito or any other flying insect. The mosquitoes die once they make contact with the nets, potentially saving more lives in the process.

Malaria isn’t a disease confined to the poorest of the poor in sub-Saharan Africa. LPGA golfer Natalie Gulbis had to withdraw from the LPGA Founders this week after being infected in Singapore two weeks ago.

The disease can be fatal, and Natalya said she took several doses of medicine after being bitten frequently during her trip. The most-recent estimates of the annual number of malaria deaths vary between 650,000 and 1.2 million worldwide, but researchers agree the overall number is declining thanks in part to the use of these insecticide-treated bed nets.

Natalya (@NatByNature) has more than 464,000 Twitter followers, 262,000 Facebook fans and is part of a pro wrestling dynasty -- the Hart family -- that goes back three generations.

“I have five or six football stadiums at my fingertips,” she said of her social media legions. “At any given second, I can push click and ask for help from my followers. The photos I sent back got a tremendous response.”

Feeling the love today! #Rwanda twitter.com/NatbyNature/st…

— Natalya (@NatbyNature) March 2, 2013


Social media was a factor in Nothing But Nets’ decision to associate itself through the UN Foundation with WWE. “Refugees already face unimaginable hardships,” Nothing But Nets director Chris Helfrich said in a statement. “With more than 140 million social media fans, WWE and its Divas have an incredible opportunity to spread the buzz about stopping malaria.”

Despite those social media numbers and multiple appearances on “Monday Night Raw” and other WWE programs, Natalya and Fox were strangers to the 30,000-plus refugee families they visited.

“People were trying to survive day to day. They’re lucky to have the basic necessities, never mind a TV or the Internet. I met many families that were six to seven on in a mattress,” she said. “The beauty of this trip was that the refuges didn’t have a clue who we were and we went in as normal people. They were just happy that someone cared about them and loved them.”

WWE’s goal is to provide and distribute 20,000 nets. Natalya doesn’t plan to stop this “life-changing” experience any time soon. Look for the “Nothing But Nets” cause to be showcased during WrestleMania 29 on April 7 at MetLife Stadium and for Natalya to continue this campaign whenever she can. “Am I going to fly to Africa and try to save all these people? Well, yes I am,” she said. “There are lots of ways [WWE] we can use our global juggernaut to reach people. The bed nets really helped kicked down the door. The possibilities are endless.”

Bill Speros is an ESPN.com contributor. He can be reached on Twitter @billsperos or via email at bsperos1@gmail.com.