This weekend, I watched the HBO premiere of “Mary and Martha,” a compelling story of two women of different ages from different countries who are drawn together by the common experience of having their sons die from a threat they never expected: malaria.
As the pair struggle to come to grips with the untimely loss of their sons, Mary (played by Hilary Swank) and Martha (Brenda Blethyn) forge a deep friendship and become advocates in the fight against a deadly disease that kills 655,000 people every year, most of them children.
As I watched the drama unfold, I couldn’t help but hope that the movie’s message reaches people who are currently unaware that children are dying from a preventable disease at an unconscionable rate. I hope that it moves them to action.
Like Mary and Martha, too many people are simply not cognizant of the impact of this killer illness.
My own connection to malaria runs deep. I’ve had it twice, first in the 1980s, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, when I walked in ankle high grass around a killing field while doing work on a film about Cambodia shortly after Pol Pot. I had another bout with the disease in Gondar, Ethiopia, a year or two later.
In both cases, I was fortunate enough to be able to get to a doctor and receive medication as soon as I began to feel symptoms—chills, fever, and listlessness.
I’ve also seen dozens of children die from malaria, and I’ve seen the grief etched on the faces of parents who have lost their children.
I recall a young mother in Honduras who brought her semi-conscious infant to a clinic, after walking miles from a small village in the rural mountains. By the time she arrived, the baby – only a few months old – was in serious danger, and the clinic lacked the medicines for an infusion for the child. As the mother sat before the nurse who attempted to treat her child, the baby died.
In a tent clinic in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where dozens of people staggered in after a severe famine, I saw a grandmother carrying a comatose baby. Breathing heavily, the baby clearly was in desperate condition. A doctor started an infusion of medication through an IV, but it was too late.
These images are emblazoned in my memory. I cannot forget them.
Those were only two children, and those scenes are repeated in similar fashion every single day. In Africa, malaria takes the life of a child every 60 seconds.
Our children, our responsibility
In the movie, Martha stays to help for a while at the orphanage in Mozambique where her son, Ben, was a teacher. When she decides to leave, the children give her a collage that says, “We are all your children,” as a parting gift.
“We are all your children.” That’s a striking statement. The children of the world are our children. Imagine what we could accomplish if everyone made a commitment to take some responsibility toward providing a healthy life for all of God’s children.
Programs like The United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria initiative and its partner organizations are making a difference, producing life-saving results. Malaria’s impact has been cut in half in just a few short years, but the battle is still far from over.
Millions of nets have been distributed, but millions more are needed before we are able to cover every child in every village at the end of every road. And nets are not enough. More lasting solutions are required. More health workers must be trained to recognize and treat symptoms at the outset of the disease. More health clinics are needed. More mothers and fathers need to know what they can do to prevent it.
This week on April 25, we will observe World Malaria Day. There’s no better time to join a movement that is saving lives. My prayer is that one day, there will be no malaria. My hope is that day will come soon.
For more information, visit ImagineNoMalaria.org.