Mak­ing a dif­fer­ence

When Jo Yir­rell’s healthy­look­ing son re­turned from a four-month vol­un­teer­ing stint in Africa in 2005, she had no idea he would be dead from malaria within weeks. The mother of four, whose story was the in­spi­ra­tion for the movie Mary and Martha, has since

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Af­ter los­ing her son to malaria, one woman has ded­i­cated her life to elim­i­nat­ing the dis­ease.

The tele­phone’s jar­ring ring­tone cut through the noc­tur­nal si­lence, and as it vi­brated on the bed­side ta­ble it cast an eerie light around the room. Jo Yir­rell stirred from a light and trou­bled sleep, her first in al­most a week. But as the in­sis­tent sound con­tin­ued, she sud­denly woke with a jolt. ‘Harry’ she thought, panic grip­ping her as im­ages of her se­dated son flooded back in un­easy tor­rents. Reach­ing for the phone, she heard the dreaded words: “I’m afraid your son has taken a turn for the worse. You had both bet­ter come to the hospi­tal now.”

As her hus­band David, 54, drove them fran­ti­cally through the night, the 50-year-old mother of four won­dered how this could have hap­pened to her healthy, hand­some son. Malaria was a dis­ease re­served for parts of the world where, un­for­tu­nately, people of­ten didn’t have ac­cess to pre­ven­ta­tive nets or medicines, not for her el­dest son from Leighton Buz­zard in Bed­ford­shire, Bri­tain; her child who just a few days ago had been play­ing rugby and so­cial­is­ing with his friends but now lay co­matose in a hospi­tal bed as his lungs, in­fected by the dis­ease, would not bear the pres­sure of mo­tion, his blood rid­dled with par­a­sites. “Please let him be OK,” she whis­pered, “let him be OK.”

But Harry, who at just 20 years old still had so much life ahead of him, would not be OK. Fresh back from four months vol­un­teer­ing as a teacher in Africa, he would not, as the doc­tors had es­ti­mated ear­lier in the day, “be very, very ill for an aw­fully long time but even­tu­ally re­cover.”

In­stead Jo’s el­dest son wouldn’t make it through the night. “We were

met at the hospi­tal doors,” says Jo. “They rushed us to his room say­ing ‘we’re re­ally sorry but we don’t think Harry is go­ing to sur­vive the night.’ I just went into au­to­matic pi­lot. The nurses told me that the last thing to go would be his hear­ing so I talked and talked and talked right through un­til the mo­ment he died. Then that was it, they cut us a lock of his hair and he’d gone.”

Harry had fallen vic­tim to one of the old­est dis­eases known to man, malaria. A pre­ventable virus, which al­though elim­i­nated in most of the world to­day, still kills a child ev­ery minute, mostly those younger than five and pre­dom­i­nantly in subSa­ha­ran Africa. Harry had con­tracted the dis­ease un­know­ingly while in the re­mote vil­lage of Brenu, Ghana, where he was a vol­un­teer build­ing a school and teach­ing the lo­cal chil­dren af­ter giv­ing up a job on a con­struc­tion site back home.

Al­though his mother had packed pre­scribed anti-malaria tablets, Harry, with the naivety of youth, had be­lieved he was strong enough not to need them. In­stead, see­ing the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects of the dis­ease on those around him, he had self­lessly given them to the lo­cal chil­dren in­clud­ing to one lit­tle girl, nine-yearold Cyn­thia Ofori, who had pre­vi­ously con­tracted malaria three times.

It was a no­ble move but one that would sadly prove to be fa­tal. “When he came back from Ghana,” says his mother, “he looked the pic­ture of health. He had shed some weight; he looked fit and healthy and it sounds clichéd but he had ‘found him­self’. He knew what he wanted to do and that was to raise some funds and go back to Africa.”

But within a week of be­ing home Harry com­plained of a headache. “We didn’t pay too much at­ten­tion,” Jo says. “We thought it was just the change of cli­mate and diet. When it started to get worse though we made an ap­point­ment for him at the doc­tor. It was a Fri­day af­ter­noon and

Harry had self­lessly given his tablets to lo­cal chil­dren af­ter see­ing the ef­fects of malaria

I was at work do­ing my job as a school in­clu­sion of­fi­cer, when he rang me to say he hadn’t made it to the doc­tor be­cause he had de­vel­oped di­ar­rhoea. Dur­ing the chat, he ad­mit­ted that he had not taken his anti-malar­ial tablets and I told him that he’d been stupid and that it was ex­tremely risky.”

As ma­ter­nal alarm bells be­gan to ring, Jo spoke to their fam­ily doc­tor, telling him that her son had re­cently re­turned from Africa and had given away his malaria tablets. Ad­vis­ing that there may be an un­der­ly­ing is­sue but urg­ing them not to worry, the doc­tor told Jo to take Harry to hospi­tal should his con­di­tion de­te­ri­o­rate.

On the morn­ing of Sun­day, July 17, when Harry woke his mother to

say he “felt like death”, Jo sprang into ac­tion. “I took him straight to the hospi­tal,” she re­mem­bers. “When we got there at around 7.30am he man­aged to walk into the ac­ci­dent and emer­gency sec­tion, then he went downhill re­ally, re­ally quickly. He was sweat­ing; he had shiv­ers and ex­treme flu-like symp­toms. By 2pm the re­sults came back say­ing he had malaria and it was se­vere.”

Harry had de­vel­oped the fourth and most fa­tal type of malaria, the fal­ci­parum strain that nearly all malaria deaths are at­trib­ut­able to. It pre­sents it­self with se­vere flu-like symp­toms in­clud­ing a fever, shiv­er­ing, pain in the joints, headache, weak­ness and re­peated vom­it­ing. Caus­ing red blood cells that are in­fected with the par­a­site to stick to­gether, the body’s tis­sue be­gins to die through lack of oxy­gen and or­gans such as the lungs, kid­neys and brain start to shut down. Harry was im­me­di­ately started on a pro­gramme of in­tra­venous drugs and he seemed to sta­bilise.

But two days af­ter the deadly di­ag­no­sis, Harry be­gan to de­velop breath­ing dif­fi­cul­ties, and doc­tors trans­ferred him from the fam­ily’s lo­cal Stoke Man­dev­ille Hospi­tal to the Cen­tre for Trop­i­cal Medicine in Ox­ford. It was a move that would be un­able to save him as the dis­ease at­tacked his lungs, caus­ing pul­monary oedema (fluid on the lungs) and restrict­ing his abil­ity to breathe. OnWed­nes­day, July 27, 2005, Jo’s el­dest son died.

“We were ab­so­lutely dev­as­tated,” Jo re­calls. “We had to go home and tell his broth­ers (Bert, now 26, Berry, 23 and Buster, 22). In some ways walk­ing through the front door was the hard­est part be­cause, al­though he was go­ing up and down we had told them we would be stay­ing at the hospi­tal a few nights while he got through the worst. We all thought he would be OK but by us com­ing home [so soon] ev­ery­one knew some­thing dread­ful had hap­pened.

“It was hor­ri­ble see­ing the grief of oth­ers, es­pe­cially watch­ing how it af­fected his broth­ers and how up­set they were. He was the el­dest brother in the true sense of the word, he was big­ger than them and he was bossier than them,” she says with a slight smile. “But he looked af­ter his younger broth­ers so it was re­ally dev­as­tat­ing for the fam­ily. The ev­ery­day things – like our din­ing ta­ble that seats six; sud­denly it was so ob­vi­ous that there was an empty space.”

In the days and weeks fol­low­ing her son’s death, Jo fo­cused on car­ing for the three broth­ers Harry had left be­hind. “As a mum or par­ent los­ing your child is a loss that tears your heart out,” she says. “You can never fill the hole it leaves be­hind; you just learn to live and carry on and it’s the things around that keep you go­ing, like my three other chil­dren. I lost one child but my other chil­dren were my rea­son to sur­vive. There was noth­ing else in my life un­til 2009 when I found my am­bas­sador­ship with Malaria No More UK.”

Hav­ing been prom­i­nent mem­bers of so­ci­ety in Leighton Buz­zard since the 1500s, the Yir­rell fam­ily death caught the at­ten­tion of lo­cal pa­pers and was sub­se­quently no­ticed by a PR com­pany in Lon­don. They ap­proached Jo to ask whether she would con­sider cam­paign­ing to raise aware­ness about malaria and to em­pha­sise through her story how crit­i­cal it is that trav­ellers take their full course of anti-malar­ial tablets.

“It dawned on me that I could do some­thing,” says Jo. “I was in a po­si­tion to re­ally make a dif­fer­ence; to make sure oth­ers didn’t need­lessly die from this dis­ease, so that other par­ents, other moth­ers wouldn’t have to go through what I did. No par­ent should have to lose a child from some­thing like malaria, which in many African coun­tries costs less than a cup of tea to pre­vent.”

Am­bas­sador for change

Throw­ing her­self into cam­paign­ing against the mos­quito-borne dis­ease, Jo soon be­gan to learn the ab­sur­di­ties and in­equal­i­ties that sur­round the avoid­able yet of­ten fa­tal ill­ness. “Malaria is a huge prob­lem par­tic­u­larly in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa, it kills hun­dreds of thou­sands of people a year and most of them are chil­dren,” she says.

“Chil­dren un­der the age of five have very lit­tle im­mu­nity and if they con­tract it they are likely to die. If they are over five, they have to be bit­ten ev­ery night for sev­eral days, which they usu­ally are if they are not un­der a mos­quito net, but they

build up some form of re­sis­tance, which means they get bouts of malaria a lit­tle like our flu. I’m not an econ­o­mist but it means school days and work­ing days for par­ents are lost, which di­rectly af­fects the econ­omy of these coun­tries. That means there isn’t any money to buy the med­i­cal sup­plies, it’s just a vi­cious cy­cle.”

Jo’s knowl­edge of the dis­ease and tire­less cam­paign­ing caught the at­ten­tion of char­ity Malaria No More UK, whose mis­sion is sim­ple – de­ter­mined to end malaria deaths, its mem­bers en­gage lead­ers, rally the pub­lic, and deliver life-sav­ing tools and ed­u­ca­tion to African fam­i­lies.

It didn’t take a mo­ment for Jo to ac­cept their of­fer of a po­si­tion as Spe­cial Am­bas­sador for the global fight against malaria in 2009.

“I had never thought about it be­fore,” she says, “but ba­si­cally be­com­ing an am­bas­sador for Malaria No More UK helped me to man­age my grief be­cause it meant I was able to talk about Harry con­stantly.”

Jo says, “I think if I had not been in a po­si­tion to do some­thing for the greater good, his death would have been in vain and I don’t think I would ac­tu­ally have been able to cope. I’m not sure where I would be now if all I had was my loss.

It gave me back that feel­ing of want­ing to be alive again be­cause I want to be here to see a head­line pro­claim­ing that ‘Malaria has been erad­i­cated’.”

Al­though that process is far­reach­ing, one of the key strate­gies that Malaria No More em­ploys is the dis­tri­bu­tion of long-last­ing in­sec­ti­cide-treated bed nets, which cre­ate a pro­tec­tive bar­rier against mos­qui­toes at night.

“What we’re try­ing to do is blan­ket the con­ti­nent in bed nets as they

‘No par­ent should have to lose a child… malaria can cost less than a cup of tea to pre­vent’

are the first step,” ex­plains Jo. “We also want to en­sure people can get malaria di­ag­nos­tic kits and get treated quickly. The quicker malaria is di­ag­nosed, the quicker it’s treated. Malaria is both treat­able and cur­able [if the right pre­ven­ta­tive mea­sures and medicines are taken].”

So far, the char­ity has sup­ported a ma­jor mos­quito net cam­paign in Ghana where the en­tire pop­u­la­tion is at risk of malaria.

Life­sav­ing nets – which cost around Dh25 each – have been de­liv­ered to fam­i­lies across the coun­try, help­ing to pro­tect more than 10 mil­lion people.

In ad­di­tion to the dis­tri­bu­tion of nets, the char­ity has worked tire­lessly to in­spire po­lit­i­cal, pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tor sup­port to keep the life-sav­ing mo­men­tum go­ing.

But it’s not just cam­paign­ing and rais­ing aware­ness that Jo un­der­took when she ac­cepted the role to be the spe­cial am­bas­sador. In fact, she soon found her­self lob­by­ing for change in pri­vate dis­cus­sions with the then Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Gor­don Brown, cam­paign­ing along­side sport­ing he­roes such as foot­baller David Beck­ham and ten­nis ace Andy Mur­ray, trav­el­ling to Brussels to urge EU gov­ern­ments to do­nate more to fight­ing malaria, and even­tu­ally sit­ting down with an ac­claimed Bri­tish film di­rec­tor in 2013.

Richard Cur­tis im­mor­talised her story in the movie Mary and Martha, star­ring two-time Os­car-win­ning ac­tress Hi­lary Swank.

It is a film that de­liv­ers a hard-hit­ting mes­sage about the dev­as­ta­tion caused by malaria through the story of two women (as­pects of both char­ac­ters were based on Jo) who cru­sade to elim­i­nate malaria af­ter they both lose sons to the dis­ease.

“Harry’s death changed my life,” she says frankly. “It changed be­yond recog­ni­tion, for the good and the bad. The bad part was ob­vi­ously that I lost Harry but I have been able to do good for oth­ers in his name.”

Mo­ti­vated by the ca­pac­ity with which her son’s story could bring about change and her role as spe­cial am­bas­sador to raise pub­lic aware­ness of the dis­ease, Jo de­cided to make a small doc­u­men­tary with huge emo­tional sig­nif­i­cance. In April 2009, she – to­gether with Malaria No More UK and the BBC – trav­elled

back to Ghana to re­trace her son’s foot­steps and tell his tale.

“I wanted to see where he had been but I wasn’t quite strong enough to do it my­self,” she says. “The doc­u­men­tary was like a push in the small of my back telling me to go be­cause it would do me good.

“Af­ter ac­cept­ing I started ques­tion­ing if I could do it. I was fright­ened to death about how I could man­age my emo­tions.”

Stronger than she gave her­self credit for, how­ever, Jo made the trip alone, her hus­band David un­able to un­der­take the emo­tional jour­ney.

“I re­mem­ber when we ar­rived where Harry had lived I was cry­ing. I thought it was go­ing to make things so much worse for me but when I got out of the minibus we were greeted by all the people who had known him and all of a sud­den I was sur­rounded by all this love and hero wor­ship of Harry and it just lifted my spir­its.”

Im­mor­talised on film

That par­tic­u­lar scene is cap­tured in the Bri­tish-made film Mary and

Martha, di­rected by Cur­tis, who is also known for pop­u­lar films Love Ac­tu­ally and FourWed­dings and a Fu­neral.

The TV movie, which was re­leased last year, is cen­tred on and largely in­spired by Jo and Harry’s story, with Jo’s char­ac­ter played by ac­claimed Bri­tish ac­tress Brenda Blethyn, best known for her roles in Atone­ment and

Pride & Prej­u­dice.

“At first it was all so un­be­liev­able that you be­come a lit­tle blasé,” says Jo. “I thought ‘OK, I’m an in­spi­ra­tion, but is there go­ing to be any of us or will it just be: white boy vis­its Africa and dies from malaria?’

“When I even­tu­ally watched the movie, which I did in tiny seg­ments be­cause I found it re­ally heartrend­ing, I re­alised that, in fact, he did use a lot of Harry’s story.

“Like the movie, Harry was a rugby player and I did run up and down the touch­line like an id­iot screech­ing. And when Harry went to Africa, I did pack his big green bag. Even some of the still pho­tos of the char­ac­ter in the film are taken from pho­tos that I have of Harry. I can’t re­ally ex­plain how I felt when the movie was made, all I can re­ally say is it’s an­other [place] where Harry is im­mor­talised and for that I am grate­ful.”

Since Jo lost her son in 2005, she has made it her mis­sion to elim­i­nate the dis­ease that took him from her. With the fiercest will of a mother she has fought hard along­side Malaria No More UK and in her son’s name progress is be­ing made. Child deaths from malaria have been halved since 2000, with over three mil­lion chil­dren’s lives now saved.

Her tire­less ef­forts lob­by­ing politi­cians and push­ing for greater do­na­tions to African coun­tries is bear­ing fruit and Jo em­pha­sises that her mo­ti­va­tion and work is al­ways car­ried out in Harry’s name.

“I have met with global pol­i­cy­mak­ers in Brussels to try to push up the do­na­tions from EU coun­tries, I have been toWash­ing­ton and spo­ken to people from the Ad­min­is­tra­tion and we are hav­ing an ef­fect,” she says. “I don’t see it, but people tell me that I’m mak­ing a dif­fer­ence. And that’s all I want to do re­ally for Harry’s sake.

“Harry’s death was un­nec­es­sary,” says Jo. “That’s the big is­sue. It didn’t need to hap­pen, be­cause if we had a grip on malaria in Africa like we do in Europe, Amer­ica and South Africa, the dis­ease wouldn’t ex­ist and it wouldn’t still be killing people.” So

‘I don’t see it, but people tell me that I am mak­ing a dif­fer­ence. And that’s all I want to do, for Harry’

she continues, as a mother, to carry Harry’s flame in her mis­sion to rid the world of the deadly dis­ease.

“That means Harry’s name will never die and that he didn’t die in vain,” she says.

“I’ve lost a son to a dis­ease that I didn’t need to and it would be nice if be­fore I die, I can make sure that other moth­ers don’t lose their sons to a dis­ease that they too don’t need to die from.”

Harry con­tracted malaria while vol­un­teer­ing to build a school

Harry grew up com­fort­ably in the UK, but later lost his life to a dis­ease con­tracted in im­pov­er­ished Ghana

Jo helped in­spire the char­ac­ter of Martha played by Brenda Blethyn in Maryand­Martha

Jo’s hard work is start­ing to pay off

Jo at­tended a pri­vate screen­ing, but found she had to watch the film in seg­ments as it was so heart-rend­ing

Jo with Aba Djan­ode, mother of Ghana­ian Chelsea foot­baller Michael Essien, who is en­gaged in the fight against malaria

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