Page last updated at 04:28 GMT, Monday, 20 April 2009 05:28 UK

Malaria is fought in son's memory

By Anna Adams
BBC News

Harry Yirrill with Cynthia Ofori
Harry helped build a school in a Ghanaian village

It is a three-hour drive to the small fishing village in Ghana where Briton Harry Yirrell worked as a volunteer.

Beyond the chaos and traffic jams of the capital Accra, the stunning deserted beaches of Cape Coast might look like a tropical paradise - but malaria is endemic.

For Jo Yirrell this was not a sightseeing tour, it was a journey to the place where her son caught malaria, the disease that killed him.

The 20-year-old had spent four months in the country helping to build schools and died from the disease a week after returning home.

"I've wanted to come to Ghana for a while, to see why Harry fell in love with the country and meet some of the people he lived and worked with," Mrs Yirrell said.


Harry's mum returns to Ghana

"But the most important thing is for me to try and work with people here to see if we can beat this disease.

"It might sound lofty but I have the will. I don't want any parent to have to go through what we did. If I can do that in Harry's memory then I think he would be very proud.

"Malaria doesn't need to kill anyone, which is the irony of Harry's death. He had the tablets with him - he just didn't take them."

Biggest killer

Since Harry's death three years ago, Mrs Yirrell has worked tirelessly with charities to raise awareness about how to prevent the disease.

Now she has been made a global ambassador for the charity Malaria No More, which launches its UK operation on Monday.

It aims to get every man, woman and child at risk in Africa a mosquito net by the end of 2010 - a target set by the United Nations in 2008.

A child dies of malaria every 30 seconds in Africa. It is one of the world's biggest killers, but easily treatable if the disease is caught in time and medication is available.

But that is not always the case in Africa, especially in some of the rural areas like the village of Brenu Aykinim, where Harry lived.

A tour of the guesthouse where Harry stayed revealed why he caught malaria. There was no net in his bedroom and he loved to sleep outside in a hammock.

Mrs Yirrell said: "I should feel angry with him but I don't. That was typical of Harry. He was like any other 20-year-old who goes on an adventure - he thought he was invincible. It would have only taken one mosquito bite for him to catch malaria."

Ernestina Marfo being treated in intensive care
Pregnant women and the under-fives are most at risk from malaria

One person she particularly wanted to meet was the little girl who had featured in so many of Harry's pictures.

The village elders introduced Mrs Yirrell to Cynthia Ofori, nine, at the school Harry helped to build.

She has had malaria three times, but since the news of Harry's death, Cynthia and the other children sleep under bed nets, a legacy Mrs Yirrell is particularly proud of.

There was another surprise meeting. Mrs Yirrell was introduced to Marah Wodufia, Harry's girlfriend she didn't even know existed until after his death.

Miss Wodufia said instead of taking his malaria tablets, Harry gave them to her.

He had promised to come back to the village later in the year and the pair had planned on touring the Ivory Coast. Harry even left a "care package" that read "do not open until I'm on the plane".

Inside was his medication and a passport photo of himself and a letter with their plans for the future.

"He never came back and then I couldn't get in touch with him. Then I heard he'd died. But I didn't believe it until I called his family," she said.

"I miss him so much and just wish he'd taken better care. I've had malaria three times and would have had some immunity - but he was British so it would have been much more dangerous for him. He should have taken those tablets."

Subtle symptoms

Most people in Ghana do catch malaria at some point but pregnant women and under-fives are at most risk.

The Princess Marie Louise in Accra is the biggest children's hospital in Ghana. Dr Isaac Abban, the hospital director, said at times as many as 70% of the children will have malaria.


Inside Accra malaria hospital

"It's so frustrating for us because the people here have taken the time to bring their children in but in many cases it's too late. Often people can't afford to make the journey and just hope the symptoms will go away," he said.

Malaria-related illness costs African economy £8bn a year
Third of all hospital admissions due to malaria
500 million people catch it worldwide each year
One million of these cases are fatal

"Others just don't realise how dangerous malaria can be because the symptoms can be subtle. Children with malaria tend to be listless and have a temperature - so the signs are not immediately apparent."

Dr Abba took Mrs Yirrell to meet Mary Eshun, 39, a mother of seven.

She was at the bedside of her two-year-old daughter, Ernestina Marfo, who had caught malaria. Ernestina had had her second blood transfusion and was in intensive care.

Mrs Eshun said: "In the past my children have had malaria but they have been OK so I wasn't worried. But she got very bad and we had to rush to the hospital last night.

"We don't use nets because they are expensive. I have a lot of children and one net would cost one week's salary. I feel bad that I didn't but we have to prioritise where we spend our money."

Sarah Kline, director of Malaria No More, said: "The bed nets only cost £5 and that will cover a mother and a baby or two children for five years. Prevention is the key and the nets are the best way to protect against the mosquitoes that carry the disease."

The charity's first mission is to ensure the leaders of G8 and EU countries deliver their goal to provide 100 million bed nets to sub-Saharan Africa by the end of 2010.

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