Mary and Martha, a TV film written by Richard Curtis starring Hilary Swank and Brenda Blethyn, was shown on BBC1 in March 2013. The film tells the story of two women who have little in common apart from one terrible thing – they both lose sons to malaria.
Mary takes her young son from America to Africa promising adventure and fun, until he falls ill with malaria, while British mother Martha loses her son while he is volunteering in Mozambique. Both mothers are inspired by their devastating loses to go on epic journeys to try and make a difference in the world.
Malaria No More UK Special Ambassador Jo Yirrell, is the British mum whose own story was a source of inspiration for the film and the character of Martha. In 2005, Jo tragically lost her 20 year old son Harry to malaria. He returned home from Ghana where he had spent four of the happiest months of his life volunteering in a school. Jo remembers: “He fell in love with the place, so much so that his first words on returning were: “I’m going back”. Harry had really found himself and his purpose in Africa”. However, Harry had come home having unknowingly contracted the deadliest strain of malaria and after ten days fighting for his life, he died.
Jo channelled her grief into helping raise awareness about malaria and the opportunity to make malaria no more a reality in our lifetime. Jo reflects: “No parent should lose their child to a disease that costs £1 to treat. I am honored to have helped inspire Martha and see a lot of myself in her, and just like Martha I got involved with the fight against malaria after my loss. I hope that this important film moves, inspires and engages people across the world about our generation’s momentous opportunity to stop suffering and death from malaria”.
Richard Curtis says: “Jo Yirrell’s story was a direct inspiration for my film – not only her story – but also her amazing reaction to what happened to her, and her son Harry – the way she chose to use her experience and her grief to try to save the lives of other children. Parts of her are in the characters of both Mary and Martha. I’ve also been inspired over the years by the work and determination of Malaria No More UK – I love the directness of the name and the organisation’s utter resolve to spread the message about malaria, how it could be stopped dead in its tracks if enough of us do our bit. Jo is an example to us all of doing just that.”
Jo’s experience illustrates the stark reality behind the fiction of Mary and Martha and, sadly, the impact of malaria is devastating for the people who live in malarial areas. A child dies every minute from malaria and 90% of these deaths are in Africa. But we are alive at a time when making malaria no more can be a reality – make sure you’re part of it.