Soap and clean water for effective handwashing can help boost a young child’s growth, according to the first large-scale scientific review to link hygiene to height - one measure of child nutrition.
While medical studies have amply proven how improved hygiene can reduce outbreaks of diarrhoea - a leading killer among children under the age of five - they have not systematically measured the impact of water, sanitation and hygiene interventions on a child’s height.
The latest study showed a “small but improved” average growth of half a centimetre among children who received clean water and soap for handwashing as opposed to those who did not. Researchers found clean water and soap reduced stunting by up to 15 percent.
There is growing scientific evidence that repeated bouts of diarrhoea reduce a gut’s ability to absorb life-enhancing nutrients that allow children to develop mentally and physically.
“WASH [water, sanitation and hygiene] squarely fits under the heading of an underlying cause of malnutrition,” one of the study’s lead authors, Alan Dangour, a public health nutritionist from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told IRIN.
Researchers identified 14 studies conducted in low and middle-income countries that provided data on the impact of WASH programming on the physical growth of nearly 9,500 children. Included were five studies with control groups of children who did not receive clean water and soap, but who were similar in most other ways to the ones who did.
“This is a scientifically robust study design that largely removes the problems faced by observational studies,” added Dangour.
Chronic malnutrition, as evidenced by stunting (when a child is too short for his or her age group), is a leading cause of preventable mental disability and contributor to three million deaths annually of children who have yet to reach age five (45 percent of all deaths in that age group).
“Until now, we have not had a demonstration of the direct nutrition impact of WASH interventions on nutrition,” said Francesco Branca, the director of nutrition for health and development at the World Health Organization, who was not involved in the study. “This review shows that a multi-pronged approach [to solving undernutrition] is the way to go.”
Researchers noted available studies on which they base their most recent findings were short-term (with none lasting more than one year), and some had data shortcomings.
While Dangour admitted that “we need much more robust evidence to definitely state that WASH is a `cure for stunting’,” the findings are, nevertheless, important, he concluded.