By Julie Steenhuysen
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chelsea Clinton is taking on the discomforting issue of diarrhea, throwing her family's philanthropic heft behind a sweeping effort in Nigeria to prevent the deaths of 1 million mothers and children each year from preventable causes, including 100,000 deaths from diarrhea.
The 32-year-old daughter of President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton joined Nigerian officials, the prime minister of Norway and other leaders on Tuesday in promoting expanded access to zinc and oral rehydration solutions or ORS, a treatment that could prevent more than 90 percent of diarrhea-related deaths in the country.
"It is unconscionable that in the 21st century, children still die of diarrhea," Clinton told Reuters in an exclusive interview by phone from Abuja, Nigeria.
The ORS and zinc work in Nigeria is in coordination with the Clinton Health Access Initiative or CHAI, on whose board Clinton serves. She has stepped up her public role in the family's global philanthropic efforts and in July took a six-day tour of Africa with her father, who founded the William J. Clinton Foundation in 2001.
The goal of the initiative in Nigeria is to help drive down the cost of high-quality ORS and zinc treatments and increase awareness for them, said Clinton, currently a doctoral candidate in international relations at the University of Oxford.
Currently, fewer than 2 percent of children in Nigeria have access to the World Health Organization-recommended treatment. Increasing the number of children with access to the therapy to 80 percent by 2015 would help prevent an estimated 220,000 deaths in Nigeria.
"I would like to see us make real, measurable progress here in Nigeria and in the other countries where we are working on ORS zinc," said Clinton, including Uganda and parts of India, as part of the Clinton Health Access Initiative's new push to improve access to essential medicines for children.
"For me, it's not complicated. We know what works and we should be doing more of it. And when we don't know what works, we should be innovating and spending time and energy on designing these solutions to solve problems that haven't been solved yet," said Clinton.
"That is what I love about the work CHAI does and the work of the foundation more broadly," she said.
BRINGING COMPANIES ON BOARD
As part of its push, CHAI is meeting with companies like Unilever, which has big distribution networks in Nigeria, to get the message out on ORS zinc, Clinton said.
The hope is to increase demand for the treatment and drive down costs, which should put the price of a single dose of the treatment at about $0.50.
CHAI began working in Nigeria in 2007 with efforts in the Niger Delta to bolster the region's HIV/AIDS infrastructure, which has helped increase pediatric HIV testing by 350 percent, and resulted in a 70 percent increase in pediatric access to powerful antiretroviral drugs.
Clinton conceded that diarrhea treatment is something many people would rather not talk about.
"It makes them feel squeamish," she said, adding, "It's important that we shine a light on these problems and then get to the business of solving them."
Clinton said it's hard to know just how much of her interest in charitable work has been influenced by the careers of her powerful parents, but in a way, it doesn't much matter.
"I couldn't imagine not doing work like this," she said. I define success in my life by how much of a difference have I made in a given day, whether that is being a good wife to my husband, a good daughter to my parents, a good friend to my friends, or helping push forward our work at CHAI or the Alliance for a Healthier Generation or any other facet of the foundation."
"I couldn't imagine it any other way, and I don't want to."
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Todd Eastham)