Not a day goes by when Jo Yirrell doesn’t think about her eldest son Harry. She tries to remember the strong, healthy 20-year-old who was close to his family, and looked out for his three younger brothers. But often she is haunted by the final moments they spent together as she watched him lose his fight against malaria.
Nine years have passed since Harry contracted Falciparum, the most lethal form of the disease, following a visit to Africa, where he helped to deliver school supplies before doing voluntary work in a school in Ghana. There he gave his malaria tablets to local people, believing their need was greater than his. This selfless decision cost Harry his life, and has led to Jo campaigning tirelessly, in order to raise awareness of malaria and prevent further needless deaths.
Jo (50) says: “Before Harry left for Africa I made sure his bag contained every medicine he would need including malaria tablets. However, I did not know much about malaria. If I had known how vital it was to take the tablets, I would have painted a very bleak picture of what could happen if he didn’t take them.
When Harry returned I discovered he’d taken the malaria tablets until he reached Ghana, but had then stopped and given them to locals. ‘They needed them,’ he said.“Harry thought he was too strong and healthy to get malaria, but then he became unwell with a headache, temperature and diarrhoea. Before long he was drenched in sweat and became delirious. Blood tests showed he had malaria, and he was put in intensive care.”
Doctors told Jo and her husband David, that they were hopeful Harry would recover. But he deteriorated, and they could only watch as the life drained from their son. “Before Harry died I sat talking to him about all the people he knew,” says Jo. “David said, ‘You’ve made me cry twice in my life. When you were born, and now.’ Telling our younger sons that Harry had died was the hardest thing I have ever had to do.”
'Travelling is an incredible experience and I would never say youngsters should not do it, but it’s vital they know the risks'
In the months following Harry’s death Jo began campaigning to raise awareness of the risks of malaria. This led to her being contacted by the charity Malaria No More UK, for whom she is now a Special Ambassador – giving talks, fronting campaigns and fundraising. In 2009 she appeared in a BBC documentary visiting the village in Ghana where Harry worked, while her story was the inspiration for the character Martha (played by Brenda Blethyn), in the television film Mary and Martha, about two women who lose sons to malaria.
“Visiting Ghana was an emotional, but positive experience,” says Jo. “I was filled with tredpidation at the start, but I found re-tracing Harry’s footsteps uplifting. It was lovely to see where he had worked and to meet his friends. They all loved Harry, which made me feel very proud. When the Mary and Martha film was broadcast and I met Brenda Blethyn I found the whole thing surreal. However, I was pleased the film was raising awareness of malaria.I’ve had some incredible experiences in the last few years, but all of them have been bittersweet because Harry isn’t here. I’m only doing these things because he died. That is always in my mind.”
Jo is hopeful that the world will one day be malaria-free, and will continue to lend her voice to the ongoing global fight to eradicate it. But right now she wants parents of youngsters who are going off travelling or taking a gap year to educate themselves about the disease, and pass on the information to their children.
“Travelling is an incredible experience and I would never say youngsters should not travel,” says Jo. “However, it’s vital they know the risks, get advice, and take the necessary medication.
When Harry went to Africa I didn’t know enough about malaria – that is my one regret. If I had, I would have been able to advise him, and if he had taken his malaria tablets he would still be alive.
It’s too late for Harry, but it’s not too late for other youngsters. I don’t want to see more parents in my position, so raising awareness of the disease and preventing further deaths is now my mission. It’s the best thing that I can do for Harry.”
What is malaria?
It is one of the world’s oldest preventable diseases, caused by a parasite transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito. Initial symptoms include headache, fever and shivering, but the disease can become serious quickly, causing convulsions, coma and even death. Malaria particularly affects people travelling in Africa and Asia. Figures from Public Health England show an increase of nine per cent in malaria infections reported in the UK in 2013 compared with the previous year.If you, or someone you know, is travelling in malaria-risk countries get medical advice before setting out, and follow the ABCD of malaria protection:
A… Be Aware of the malaria risk in the local area and the disease’s symptoms.
B… Avoid being Bitten by mosquitoes, especially between dusk and dawn.
C… Take precautionary anti-malarial drugs (Chemo-prophylaxis), where advised.
D… Seek Diagnosis and Treatment immediately if a fever develops a week or more after entering a malaria risk area, and up to three months after departure.
- World Mosquito Day takes place on August 20. This little known day is used by Malaria No More UK to raise vital awareness of malaria. To find out more, call 0207 801 3840 or visit www.malarianomore.org.uk
Photograph © Arthur Edwards, Mirrorpix