Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Dying from malaria in a Thai hospital, Christopher made one last call home to say goodbye ...

On World Malaria Day, Martin Gallagher, from Londonderry, tells Una Brankin of the pain of losing his son and his life-saving legacy

Keen traveller: one of the last photos of Christopher Gallagher, who died in Thailand after contracting malaria

Cheryl Cole's widely publicised bout of malaria in July 2010 brought the deadly disease to the attention of a generation that may otherwise never have heard of it. Before then, for many, malaria was something vaguely associated with mosquitoes and World War Two soldiers out in the tropics.

But when reports began to surface of the singer's hospitalisation, following a break in Tanzania with dancer Derek Hough, the constant updates on news outlets brought back the most painful memories of a living nightmare for the Gallagher family from Shantallow, Londonderry.

At one stage in her illness, Cheryl Cole was given 24 hours to live. Christopher Gallagher, a 23-year-old graduate, was given the same prognosis, weeks after some seemingly harmless mosquito bites turned lethal. While Cheryl lived to see another day though, Christopher wasn't so lucky.

Since his death in Thailand in May 2006, Christopher's heartbroken parents, Martin and Mary, and his younger brother, Martin (29), have campaigned tirelessly to raise funds to tackle the disease, which leads to one-in-five of childhood deaths in Africa alone.

And to mark World Malaria Day, retired nurse Martin Gallagher wants as many people as possible to hear Christopher's story.

Christopher wanted to see a bit of the world after he got his English Literature degree from Queen's University, so he took off travelling on his own.

He was a fun-loving guy -- 'What's the craic?' was the first thing he'd say when you met him. He wanted to be a reporter and he liked a bit of adventure.

He was on a journey of a lifetime, travelling round South Asia -- he visited India, Tibet, Cambodia and Vietnam before he hit Thailand.

As a child, Christopher showed great interest in programmes on TV about temples in India and other places in South Asia. He got to visit the Taj Mahal and made lots of friends on his travels, some of whom have travelled to visit us over the years since his death.

He died just two weeks before he was due to return home. He'd been away a couple of months and he'd email us regularly. I remember one photo he sent from Thailand to show us mosquito bites on his legs -- they looked quite severe, but there were no immediate symptoms until he started to feel very run-down and got what he thought was a heavy cold.

He got himself to the nearest hospital, a very run-down one, but when they realised he was insured, he got transferred to a better one.

We had insisted he took out full health insurance the same day he got his anti-malaria drugs. But they can only do so much -- one of those bites he'd got had been fatal, and by that stage he knew it.

He phoned us from his hospital bed at 5.50am on his mother's birthday, on May 20, 2006, knowing his life was coming to a close.

He sounded very weak, but he still had his strength of character in his voice.

He wanted to say goodbye. I knew by what he was saying that he hadn't much time. He told us he loved us and that he loved his wider family and friends. Then he couldn't talk any longer and had to hang up.

We had a three-day wake for him at home. We couldn't open the coffin to say goodbye to him, but we had our memories. He was a handsome fella.

His death was such a tragic loss for us, but something good has come out of it.

It was while we were waiting for his remains to return home, that his mother decided that she wanted to have something set up in his memory. We felt if we could prevent one child from ever getting this horrible disease, then Christy's passing was not in vain. Christopher saw a lot of poverty while he was on his journey and he was planning to join up with a charity to do some good. Sadly, he didn't get to fulfil that journey, but with the help of one of his friends, Diarmuid Bonner, who happened to be working for the local charity Children in Crossfire, our malaria fund was born.

Today the Christopher Gallagher Malaria Fund continues to fundraise to put good healthcare in place for young children at risk of malaria all over the world.

Malaria nets (costing £5) and medicines are distributed to families, and the charity has had an opportunity to see where the money raised has been spent. The malaria fund exists as part of Richard Moore's team in Children in Crossfire and we are indebted to them for giving us the opportunity to deal with our grief in this special way. Christopher had a lot of good friends whom he saw as his extended family.

For us, as Christopher's parents, they are just like the sons and daughters that we never had. They miss Christy as much as we do and they continue to support us as a family, and even though it is eight years down the line, they are there at a moment's notice if there is any event running to raise funds for the charity.

A great example of this was when a charity football match was held last year for what would have been Christy's 30th birthday, on March 9.

The day was turned into a fundraising day in Christopher's memory and the event was rounded off in the Derry City Club with an end to a great day.

Seeing all of Christy's friends together is always a comfort to us as parents."

MALARIA ... WARNING SIGNS YOU NEED TO KNOW

Over the last few years, up to 39% of those travelling in South Asia have contracted malaria. The disease occurs when the female Anopheles mosquito feasts on the blood of a victim and injects its deadly plasmodium parasite into the bloodstream.

If treated in the early stages with anti-malarial drugs, the chances of survival are good; however, there may still be a risk of the disease recurring.

Left untreated, the victim can become very ill, with an increased risk of death. On entering the bloodstream, the parasite begins breaking down the red blood cells in the body and multiplies rapidly. Symptoms include chills, fever, sweats and severe fatigue, and treatment must be in quarantine.

Even when successfully treated, anyone who has contracted malaria can have the disease lying dormant in their system for the rest of their lives and can suffer bouts of it. If untreated, severe strains of malaria will progressively shut down the organs. Preventative measures like mosquito nets and medicines have already had a major impact on reducing malaria. A new vaccine is due to be rolled out in 2016.

To reduce the risk of malaria before travelling to hot spots:

* Visit your GP 4-6 weeks in advance of travel

* Get full travel/health insurance

* Finish the full course of antimalarial drugs from your GP

UP TO 800,000 DEATHS A YEAR

* Malaria is transmitted by an infected mosquito and it only takes one bite to contract the disease. The early symptoms include a headache, aching muscles, weakness and a lack of energy, which means it can be confused for other conditions like exhaustion or flu

* Up to 3.4bn people are at risk of getting malaria at some stage of their lives by travelling to hotspots where the disease is quite dominant. An even greater risk exists for people living in continents such as Africa

* Africa has the highest malaria mortality rates, with a child dying every minute from the disease. Charities all over the world continue to concentrate their work mainly on Africa. Malaria costs the continent up to $12bn a year, which is the equivalent of a year's foreign aid

* Up to 800,000 people die each year from the disease, with higher mortality in the rainy season. Young children from the age of five and under have become the most vulnerable, making up 80% of deaths. Children have no immunity to the disease and tend not to survive for long after contracting it

...BUT LIVES ARE BEING SAVED

* The Christopher Gallagher Malaria Fund has achieved a great deal since 2006 and continues to supply healthcare for children of all ages, nets and medicines for more than 12,000 children, including those in orphanages. The charity funds a doctor and nurses in a clinic in Miwaleni, Tanzania, and the training of two of the 13 nurses working with Children in Crossfire

* In May 2013, Children in Crossfire gave the fund its Transforming Lives Award in recognition of its work to save the lives of young children.

* Donations can be made to the charity as follows:

By cheque or Postal Order made out to 'Children in Crossfire' with a note accompanying it saying 'Malaria Fund'.

Visit www.justgiving.com/ malaria

Text: MAMG50 to 70070

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