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Mia Farrow on UNICEF's effort to eradicate polio

January 24, 2000
8 p.m. EST
Mia Farrow
Mia Farrow  

(CNN) -- Polio, one of the most feared diseases of childhood, has all but been eliminated in some countries of the world due to aggressive vaccination programs. Yet there are places where the disease still strikes the young with alarming frequency. Campaigns are underway to prevent the spread.

Actress Mia Farrow contracted polio at age nine, but was able to overcome its debilitating effects. Today, she is the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) special representative for polio and is spearheading a national campaign in Nigeria to combat the disease.

Chat Moderator: Welcome to, Mia Farrow.

Mia Farrow: Hello, everyone.

Chat Moderator: When were you first approached to become UNICEF's special representative for polio?

Mia Farrow: In September of the year 2000, they asked me if I would take that title on officially. But it was in June of 1999 that I first came in with UNICEF to work with them.

Chat Moderator: Were you surprised at the number of countries that are still dealing with polio outbreaks?

Mia Farrow: No, I wasn't surprised because my son, Seamus, was born in India and was afflicted with polio -- before I adopted him -- so, I became aware the polio was still a major problem in developing countries.

Chat Moderator: What has the Nigerian government done to get out the word about polio and available vaccines?

Mia Farrow: Well, the government in Nigeria has shown tremendous support. All their TV stations have been running the announcement, and they even had town criers going to remote villages and towns -- everything possible to get the word out. They even provided money to buy vaccines.

Chat Moderator: Are there pharmaceutical companies who are involved in trying to make affordable vaccines available in poorer countries that need them?

Mia Farrow: The polio vaccine is being made by Pasteur and is affordable. It is 7 cents a dose, so they are doing that.

Question from chat room: Generally, how does it spread?

Mia Farrow: It is airborne. Lack of environmental sanitation, as well.

Chat Moderator: What treatments are available for polio, and what is the success rate for these treatments?

Mia Farrow: Well, once you have been afflicted with polio, there isn't any treatment. The damage is done. There is very little one can do. In the U.S. and other developed countries, we have braces, and we can straighten out the limbs through therapy. From my own son, it took a year to get the right angle straight, so he could get his braces on. But primarily, he is in a wheelchair, and there is nothing anyone can do about that. So, the real answer is prevention.

Chat Moderator: How successful was National Immunization Day in Nigeria?

Mia Farrow: It has been very successful. Some 40 million children were immunized this time around. In the West African countries -- the combination -- it was 70 million children under 5 years of age in 17 different countries.

Question from chat room: How close are we to a cure for polio?

Mia Farrow: I don't think we talk about cures for polio; we talk about eradication. If the vaccine is given to every child three times in one year, and then every year for the first five years, then that will mean there will be no more polio on the face of the earth and no more need for immunizations. And that will save billions worldwide, billions that can be applied to HIV, AIDS and other medical emergencies. So, it is important to get this off the plate, so to speak.

Question from chat room: Is vaccination at birth not a good idea in polio-prone areas?

Mia Farrow: They give them at one month.

Chat Moderator: If individuals want to contribute to this effort, where can they send donations?

Mia Farrow: They can send donations to UNICEF, and I have seen first hand that the money there goes directly to the children and to the healthcare program. There is also Rotary and the World Health Organization. They wouldn't go wrong in choosing any of those organizations if they wish to help.

Question from chat room: Which country has the most number of polio cases?

Mia Farrow: India has the most. And in Africa, it is Nigeria.

Question from chat room: Mia, congratulations for your participation in making visible this problem, and for acting so effectively by volunteering your time for this cause --especially, considering that 2001 is the International Year for Volunteers. How would you advocate having others volunteer their time for such campaigns in other parts of the world?

Mia Farrow: You know, if people wanted to volunteer, they could speak to UNICEF and Rotary, but they should be careful that it is an organization that is good. These organizations, I have mentioned, do tremendous work, and are very good to work with.

Chat Moderator: Is eradication of polio by 2005 realistic?

Mia Farrow: I'm not skeptical about that. I truly believe that it is possible, and more than probable, that polio will be eradicated before the year 2005. Ten years ago, for example, the numbers of cases of polio were over 350,000. And last year it was 2,000.

So, at this rate, I think anyone can see from the numbers that it's going fast. The problems have been reaching children in war torn countries, and of course, some funding still remains. A half a billion dollars is still needed.

Chat Moderator: Have any corporations committed funds to help with this effort?

Mia Farrow: Lots of corporations have committed funds. A couple of big donors for UNICEF were Ted Turner and Bill Gates. And I know that governments, too, have been tremendously supportive. The list of corporations that have donated to UNICEF is a very long list.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us, Mia Farrow.

Mia Farrow: Thank you. Goodbye.

Mia Farrow joined us from CNN's U.N. studio. provided a typist for her. The above is an edited transcript of the chat, which took place Wednesday, January 24, 2001.

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