Clean water and soap may help improve growth in children

Improving water quality and hygiene practices may improve the growth of children, according to a new report, the Cochrane review

1 Aug 2013

Improving water quality and hygiene practices may improve the growth of children, according to a new report. The Cochrane review – authored by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and WaterAid – found evidence of small but significant improvements in growth of children under the age of five who have access to clean water and soap.

Researchers identified 14 studies conducted in low and middle income countries (Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Chile, Guatemala, Pakistan, Nepal, South Africa, Kenya and Cambodia) that provided data on the effect of water, sanitation and hygiene programmes on the physical growth of 9,469 children. The authors’ analysis of the data suggested that interventions to improve the quality of the water in the household and provide soap resulted in an average 0.5cm increased height growth in children under the age of five.

Report lead author Dr Alan Dangour, a public health nutritionist from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said, "We typically think that providing clean water, sanitation and hygiene is an effective way to reduce the incidence and associated deaths from diseases such as diarrhoea – which remains the third biggest killer of under fives worldwide. For the first time our analysis suggests that better access to these services may also have a small but important impact on the growth of young children.

"While there are some important shortcomings in the available evidence base, we estimate that clean drinking water and effective hand washing could reduce the prevalence of stunting in children under the age of five by up to 15%. This is potentially an extremely important finding, that identifies that improving access to water, sanitation and hygiene could be a key part of the tool kit to tackle the global burden of undernutrition."

International development funding supports many nutritional interventions, such as the provision of vitamin supplements, that directly tackle poor nutrition outcomes, but this is the first study to show that interventions in water, sanitation and hygiene could also play a role in improving nutritional outcomes for children.

WaterAid's chief executive Barbara Frost said: "As well as resulting in hundreds of thousands of under-five deaths every year, there is a growing consensus that unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene can affect the body's ability to absorb nutrients, impacting on child development and contributing to their stunting.

"Stunting continues to have serious consequences on the social and economic outcomes of developing countries. With only £1.57 ($2.39) a year provided in aid for water and sanitation per person in sub-Saharan Africa – less than the price of a cup of coffee – we have to make access to these life critical necessities a higher priority."

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