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Hilary Swank's New Role: Malaria Hero

In her latest film, the actress plays a mom determined to eradicate the disease.

The Global Malaria Epidemic

In the movie, American Mary and British Martha lose their sons to malaria while touring South Africa and bordering Mozambique. Despite coming from very different, very Western worlds, the women bond through shared grief and vow to fight the disease after learning that malaria can be eradicated through simple, research-tested methods: insecticide-treated bed nets, mosquito population control, indoor insecticide spraying, rapid diagnostic tests (RDT), ongoing education, and immediate use of new combination therapies for those infected.

Swank, with the rest of the cast and crew, shot much of the movie in South Africa. "We avoided the worst-infected areas, like Mozambique, and we traveled at a low-risk time," she says, referring to the changing seasons, which bring the highest rates of infection to the area from October through May. "Can you imagine if one of our own contracted malaria while we were trying to tell this story?"

The disease is borne by mosquitoes. Breeding near still pools of water, these biting insects spread the infection to people. When an infected mosquito bites a human, a parasite in the insect's saliva is introduced into the person's bloodstream, where it quickly destroys red blood cells and can damage vital organs. According to the World Health Organization, "symptoms of malaria appear seven days or more (usually 10 to 15 days) after the infective mosquito bite. The first symptoms -- fever, headache, chills, and vomiting -- may be mild and difficult to recognize as malaria. If not treated within 24 hours, [symptoms] can progress to severe illness, and often death."

Swank is an avid traveler and had toured the region long before shooting there on location. "I've been all over the continent of Africa. It's a place I love," she says. "When I have gone in the past I've gotten [vaccinations] and taken those precautions. It's imperative."

Swank's First Mother Role

The movie shoot was harrowing, not just for its malaria theme but because it addresses the shattering heartbreak that occurs when a child dies. "This is the first time that being a mother has been so central to my character's role -- where I was a mother or acted that relationship between a mother and child. I've always wanted to," Swank says.

Does Swank, who was married to actor Chad Lowe from 1997 to 2007 and is now dating (if officially single), dream of motherhood? "I know this movie is going to raise that question now more than ever, now that I'm in my late 30s," she says. "I put my focus on my career when I was young and married. But it is definitely something I want to experience in my life, and something important to me. When the time is right, it'll happen."

Still, Swank expresses a mother's grief with raw authenticity when her character's young son quickly advances through the stages of malaria, falls into a coma, and dies in an emergency room days later. "The people I love in my life, I love them completely," she says. "And yet they haven't come from my body. I can't imagine...there is probably no worse thing in the world than losing your child."

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