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Mary and Martha and Malaria

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I don't know exactly when it was that I became a little obsessed with malaria. I think it was in a conversation with a man called Jeffrey Sachs who wrote the brilliant book The End of Poverty and has a slightly controversial haircut. He talked about malaria being this "low hanging fruit" -- a disease that was entirely preventable and curable but was killing a million people a year, most of them children.

Not long after, I saw an extraordinary documentary called Fever Road. It was mainly set in a village in Kenya where every single summer a chunky percentage of the children inevitably died of malaria. They had "malaria month." Every year. Just like that. If you take my son Charlie's class -- that's Charlie himself, Barney and Sam gone this year. Kassim, Rosie and Jimmy, who plays in goal, next year. But basically the documentary had the same message -- a preventable, curable disease, was killing close to a million children a year.

The more we looked at it, the more it seemed like the perfect example of what we'd claimed, that it really is possible for a small amount of money to change and save the lives of the people we serve in Africa. A mosquito net costs £5 (about $7.50), the rapid testing kit costs 40p, the emergency drugs cost £1.20.

I started to get obsessed and really confused. Our newspapers often concentrate for weeks on the death of one child in the UK -- but here were a million children, dying every year, and nothing in the papers. Billions of pounds spent on wars, with uncertain outcomes -- but not enough money put aside to fight a curable, preventable disease where there is actually a plan, a blueprint for getting the deaths down to nearly zero -- yet, it's never at the top of anyone's agenda.

Can you know these facts, and not do anything about them? Was I going to be a writer who knew about this -- and yet continue to write fictional films usually featuring weddings? And that's why I wrote Mary and Martha, which is on HBO this week.

The film is 90 minutes long, and was directed by a giant of an Australian director, Phillip Noyce, who made a few of my favourite films, in particular Rabbit Proof Fence and Dead Calm. It's about two women -- an American, Mary, acted by the wonderful Hilary Swank and the quintessential British actress Brenda Blethyn, playing Martha. Both of them start the movie with no connection to malaria. Both of them end the movie utterly obsessed and passionate about the issue, having been personally and terribly affected by it. The film is really about being a parent, and about, as Brenda's character says, the question of "What can a mother without a child really do?" What they decide to do is find out about malaria, and do whatever they can to fight against this terrible killing machine.

There's a speech that Mary's father, a conservative American, makes towards the end of the film, which I hope it's OK if I re-produce here:

Did you know that if you take every single person killed in a terrorist act around the world in the last 20 years -- and add to that every life that's been lost in the Middle East since the Six Day War in '67 -- and add to that every single American life we lost in Vietnam and Korea -- and every single other military conflict America's been involved in since then, Iraq, Afghanistan... If you take all those lives -- that we'd all have given so much to save -- you've still got to multiply them by two to get to the number of kids who die of malaria every single year.

And Mary and Martha, two very ordinary women who sorrow makes extraordinary, try to do something about that.

I don't know what the film will achieve -- I just hope that people who watch it will enjoy it in that way that sad things can be enjoyable -- and maybe, some of you who do will find that you want to do something to save one life, or be part of the movement that makes sure that in our lifetime we save millions and millions and millions of children's lives, unnecessarily lost. The number dying of malaria each year now has gone down to around 650,000. This amazing progress shows the battle can be won. But there's a tragically long way to go. The faster we get there, the better.