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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.

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."

Malaria's Threat to Children

Why is malaria so dangerous for children in particular? "Children are most susceptible because their immune systems are not fully developed," says Phil Thuma, MD, senior associate director at Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute. "Pregnant women and anyone with a compromised immune system, including HIV-positive patients, are vulnerable, too."

RDTs, portable screening tests that offer immediate results, have made a crucial difference in the early detection and treatment of malaria. Just a few years ago, many Africans showed up at hospitals with fevers and were misdiagnosed or were sent home without proper treatment, a potential death sentence. Developed over the last decade, RDTs are becoming available in even the remotest villages. Without microscopes and trained technicians, the test can detect evidence of malaria parasites in human blood, usually from a finger prick.

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