Child stunting is a global problem and is only modestly responsive to dietary interventions. Numerous observational studies have shown that water quality, sanitation, and handwashing (WASH) in a household are strongly associated with linear growth of children living in the same household.
The authors have completed three randomised efficacy trials testing improved household-level WASH with and without improved infant and young child feeding (IYCF) on stunting and diarrhoea in Bangladesh, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. In all trials, improved IYCF had a statistically significant benefit, but WASH had no effect on linear growth. In observational analyses of data from the control groups of the three trials, baseline sanitation was a strong risk factor for stunting in the study populations, suggesting this frequently reported association might be confounded by unmeasured factors of household well-being.
WASH interventions reduced diarrhoea in Bangladesh, but not in Kenya or Zimbabwe. Intervention promoters visited participants six times per month in Bangladesh compared with monthly in Kenya and Zimbabwe; a review of the literature shows that virtually all published studies that have reported an effect on diarrhoea through home-based water treatment and handwashing promotion achieved high adherence by visiting participants at daily to fortnightly intervals. Despite achieving substantial behavioural change and significant reduction in infection prevalence for some enteric pathogens, detection of enteropathogens among children in the WASH groups of the trials was typically at ten times higher prevalence compared with high-income countries.
Considering these results, the authors recommend that future research in the WASH sector focus on developing and evaluating interventions that are radically more effective in reducing faecal contamination in the domestic environment than the interventions implemented in these trials.