Simply improving the quality of water and using soap could make children grow taller, according to the first study of its kind.
Researchers found that basic methods to maintain good hygiene could add half a centimetre to a five-year-old as poor personal care can increase the risk of infection in the gut, thereby 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 165million children worldwide, by up to 15 per cent.
The study's authors say the findings are key to tackling the 'burden of undernutrition' which causes 3.1million deaths annually and accounts for nearly half of all deaths of under-fives.
The study was carried out for the Cochrane Review and authored by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and charity WaterAid.
It examined 14 studies conducted in low- and middle-income countries including Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Chile and Nepal using data on 9,000 children.
Yael Velleman, one of the authors and a senior policy analyst at WaterAid, told The Independent that the link between disinfecting water, sanitation and nutrition could explain why children in some countries are shorter than others in equally developed nations.
Five years ago, the World Health Organisation estimated that 50 per cent of childhood malnutrition is associated with repeated diarrhoea or intestinal worm infections.
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