Jo Yirrell has dedicated her life to raising the awareness necessary to defeat malaria, the disease that killed her son, Harry.
Richard Curtis, writer and director of Love Actually was inspired by Jo’s story, and decided to make it into a film called Mary & Martha.
“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,” said Curtis.
Mary & Martha is about the unlikely friendship that forms between two mothers who have nothing in common except the loss of their sons to malaria. Mary, played by Hilary Swank and Martha, played by Brenda Blethyn team up to campaign for malaria prevention.
Mary and Martha premiered on Thursday, February 28th on BBC1.
For Jo, the most important part of the film is that it will raise awareness of malaria.
Awareness of malaria in the UK has waned since it was eradicated there in the 1960s. Yet, not all of the world is as protected from malaria as the UK. Harry Yirrell’s story serves to demonstrate the fate of the 600,000 people who sucumb to this preventable disease each year.
Harry contracted malaria while volunteering as an aid worker in Ghana in 2005. He caught the disease after selflessly giving his anti-malarial tablets to the children he had met in a remote fishing village in Ghana.
Harry came to care for the children he met in Ghana, some of whom suffered from malaria. He taught them to play his keyboard, introduced them to his beloved rugby and helped to build new classrooms for their school.
“Harry assumed he was too strong and healthy to get malaria,” said Jo. “He thought the children needed the medication more than him.”
9 days after returning home to Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, it became evident that Harry was infected. Harry died three weeks later from with falciparum malaria, the most dangerous form.
After Harry’s death, Jo began fundraising and working to raise awareness of malaria.
She lobbied politicians, met with then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and became the special ambassador of Malaria No More. In 2009, she appeared in a BBC-documentary in which she retraced Harry’s steps to the village in Ghana that he had visited.
“I made it my mission to see Ghana become malaria-free,” said Jo. “I know that it’s possible because mosquito nets being placed over beds have already cut deaths there by a third. Bed nets cost just £5 each.”
Deaths from malaria are decreasing. From 2000 to 2010, the number of deaths from malaria declined from 985,000 to 655,000. Moreover, in the last decade, 1.1 million children were saved from malaria infection in Africa.
As the special ambassador of Malaria No More, Jo has expanded her goal of attaining a malaria-free Ghana to the global goal of attaining near zero deaths from malaria by 2015.
– Kasey Beduhn