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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.

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.

Fortunately, with increased funding from governments and private charities during the last decade, malaria's annual death count has been reduced by 25% to 30%. "Not long ago, malaria killed in the millions each year," says David Bowen, PhD, Malaria No More's CEO.

There is a precedent for 100% eradication. Many don't realize the United States once had a malaria problem, with stubborn pockets of the epidemic in southeastern states until it was finally wiped out in 1951 through spraying, nets, and screening. "We have even better therapies in place now," Bowen maintains. "If the political will is there, it can be done in Africa and around the world."

Swank's Beautiful, Powerful Roles

Whether trekking through African terrain or altering her body to land a plum part, Swank is known for taking risks with every role. In Boys Don't Cry she fooled millions into believing she was a young man -- a role for which she had to first lose much of her body fat (the average woman has 10% more body fat than a man). For Million Dollar Baby she reportedly put on 20 pounds of muscle and trained for months to convincingly portray a boxer, and even suffered a life-threatening staph infection from a foot blister that formed due to hours in the ring.

And, while Curtis raves about Swank's performance in Mary and Martha --"Hilary is a performer of immense integrity, and she brings so much of that passion to Mary" -- the screenwriter concedes that "physically, it was a tough shoot to do."

So how does Swank safeguard her health when a role makes such intense bodily demands? "It's definitely a challenge," she says. "It has to be done right or you do risk hurting yourself, especially if you do role after role where you're changing your physical appearance."

She also takes a balanced approach to her diet. "It's clear when you're eating right, you feel better. If I feel sluggish, I know I'm missing something," she says. "That does not mean I don't do desserts or sugar. Everything in moderation! I have something sugary every day. I don't eat perfectly, but when I do eat something that's not healthy, I don't overdo it."

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