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Women's Health

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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.

Hilary Swank's Social Conscience continued...

"I knew there were moments in the script Richard had experienced," Swank says. "He's vocal about eradicating malaria. This is not a true story: It's fiction, but it's harrowing to think things like that really happen. [The narrative] is not related to one specific person, but to millions. We could wipe malaria from the face of the earth today if we wanted to -- it's a wake-up call."

Curtis has been involved in malaria fundraising for years through Malaria No More and other charities. "I go to Africa quite often," he says. "That scene is almost a direct quotation from a real-life scene I witnessed. ...There are big statistics out there about malaria's mortality rate, and we're terribly aware of the tragedy of one child dying. But when you have so many dying every day, it somehow has less impact. With the film I wanted to make the statistics more painful...the children in Africa are in agony and in danger."

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."

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