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Interview with Jo Yirrell

"I believe [Mary and Martha] will help audiences understand that malaria is a preventable disease, and its a disease that, given the right resources, can be reduced and perhaps even eradicated in our life time."

HBO

Tell us about your son, Harry [the real-life inspiration for the character Ben, in Mary and Martha], and the work he was doing in Africa.

JO YIRRELL

Well, prior to his going to Africa, Harry was at a stage in his life where he was slightly lost. And an opportunity came up for him to travel to Ghana, to teach young children English. He just loved Ghana, and threw himself into his work, and village life. He loved the people there, and he loved helping them. He was a great lad, with a great sense of humor; big, strong boy, redhead, just like his dad; a very caring and protective chap. He believed that he was strong enough that he didnt need the anti-malaria tablets he had with him. And he decided, rather foolishly, to give them away to the people around him, mainly to children. And as a consequence he contracted malaria and died from it when he came home.

HBO

How did you overcome that loss?

JO YIRRELL

Well, you dont actually overcome losing a child. What you do is you have to learn to live with it. And you have to learn to not feel guilty about enjoying life again, because its very important for yourself and the rest of your family. We always kept in mind that it would have been important to Harry for us to continue with our lives. [Harrys father] David and I live with it every day, and the slightest thing can set it off, particularly when were alone; it just takes one glance and you know youre both thinking about Harry. And so theres still tears; you never forget it. But I realized that those around me were also suffering. They needed my support. And so I learned to go on. All our family supported each other. But the fact is you never get over it. It never goes away. You just have to learn to live life again.

HBO

Tell us a little about Malaria No More. What brought you to work with them, and with [writer] Richard Curtis?

JO YIRRELL

Well, funny enough, I actually started off helping to educate travelers about malaria, and encouraging them to take their tablets and listen to the bite prevention measures. And then Malaria No More asked me to be their special ambassador. And I quickly discovered that the campaigning was incredibly therapeutic. I got to tell the world about my Harry. I found that I could empathize with other mothers and fathers who had lost children to malaria.

And (writer) Richard Curtis picked up my story, from the work I did with Malaria No More. I got a letter from him, saying that Im an inspiration to his film. And its all rather unbelievable. I am honored. And I cant think of a strong enough word to say what it means to me, that by using Harry as his inspiration, he is immortalized around the world. So I couldnt ask for more, as a parent.

HBO

What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

JO YIRRELL

The film delivers a powerful message that seems to make people understand the issues around malaria. I believe it will help audiences understand that malaria is a preventable disease, and its a disease that, given the right resources, can be reduced and perhaps even eradicated in our life time. That would be a huge humanitarian moment in history. And for me, it would mean that Harry would be a part of that, and I would be part of building a monument to him.

Mary and Martha

HBO Films