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Notes from HBO movie 'Mary and Martha' premiere at the Carter Center

Atlanta’s role in the global fight against malaria

This spring, Atlantans are probably more concerned about shaving ice for our cocktails than making sure our fruit-scented insect repellant actually works. Yet, any Southerner who sees the new HBO film, Mary and Martha (which held its U.S. premiere at The Carter Center on Tuesday and debuts on the cable network Saturday), may never sip poma-tinis on the porch again without thanking our friends over at the CDC for killing malaria’s buzz way back when.

The film’s Mary, a fortyish suburbanite played by Hilary Swank, abandons her yoga class, silences her iPhone, and takes a summertime sojourn from Virginia to South Africa. One fateful mosquito bite later, she experiences the horrors of malaria before finding future BFF Martha (Brenda Blethyn) at a Mozambican orphanage and developing a new purpose as a political activist.

Mary and Martha’s depiction of children fighting the deadly parasitic illness in present-day Africa may seem a world away to Americans, but the images aren’t entirely foreign to Georgia’s past.

Like most chapters of modern Atlanta history, this one has a Coca-Cola connection. In the 1940s, the legendary Coke chief and philanthropist Robert Woodruff witnessed a worker on his plantation getaway Ichauway in the throes of malarial fever, and asked Emory experts for help eradicating malaria on his south Georgia retreat. Woodruff then used his influence—and a generous real-estate donation—to lure to Atlanta the federally funded Communicable Diseases Center, which evolved into today's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Files in the National Institutes of Health archives contain reports from a Dr. Justin Andrews, who moved to Atlanta to head the just-formed CDC in the 1940s and described malaria-ridden areas of pre-WWII Georgia as “pitiful.” Rural schools kept rows of “chilling” beds designated for students sick with malarial fevers. Thanks in part to the work of the CDC (and the controversial insecticide DDT), the disease was declared “eliminated” from the United States in 1951.

While malaria is rare in the U.S. today, it remains a global killer. The CDC reports that some 216 million people contracted malaria in 2010. Another Atlanta-based organization—the Carter Center—is heavily involved in the fight against malaria. Dr. Paul Emerson, co-director of the Carter Center’s Malaria Control Program and a speaker at the film premiere, says Atlanta’s role as a global health center is important in the history of the fight and that the disease is declining, “but the game’s not yet over.”

Mary and Martha tackles a tough subject, but you don’t have to be an epidemiologist to understand it. Screenwriter Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral) says years of charity campaigning and being a father to four kids are what motivated him to tell the evolving story of malaria. “There’s an autobiographical element in the film about the journey from knowing nothing to wanting to do something about it.”