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Clean water and soap may help improve growth in young children

01 August 2013

Improving water quality and hygiene practices may stop children losing essential nutrients vital to growth, says study

Simply providing children with clean water and soap could make them grow taller, according to the first study of its kind. 

Researchers found that improving the quality of water and hand-washing could add half a centimetre to the height of children under five – as poor personal care can increase the risk of infection in the gut, reducing the amount of nutrients absorbed.

It could also reduce the prevalence of stunted growth, which irreversibly affects physical and mental development of an estimated 165 million children worldwide, by up to 15 per cent.

The study was carried out for the Cochrane review – authored by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and WaterAid. Its lead author, Dr Alan Dangour, said the findings were key to tackling the "burden of undernutrition”.

Undernutrition is a cause of 3.1 million deaths annually – accounting for nearly half of all deaths of children under five years old. Dr Dangour, who is also a senior research fellow at the Department for International Development (DfID), added: "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.”

The review examined 14 studies conducted in low- and middle-income countries – including Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Chile, South Africa and Nepal – providing data on 9,469 children. It is thought additional research being undertaken in Zimbabwe, India and Bangladesh will strengthen the evidence.

Professor Tim Wheeler, deputy chief scientific adviser to the Department for International Development, which funded the research, said: "Failure to get the right nutrition in childhood can cause lifelong damage that cannot be undone. This report provides further support to the idea that using clean water and soap remains one of the best ways to prevent contracting diarrhoea and stopping young children losing the essential nutrients vital for them to grow."