Up to one in 10 children are thought to be victims of maltreatment in high-income countries, experts said Wednesday, warning that child abuse is much more widespread than most people think.
The researchers from universities in Britain and the United States called for increased funding for research into the issue, and a reasoned public debate on combating child abuse.
"It's a much bigger public health problem than is commonly perceived," said Richard Horton, editor of British medical journal The Lancet, which focused its latest edition on the issue.
The issue has taken on heightened significance in Britain in recent weeks, with outrage over the death of a toddler who suffered horrific abuse, despite being on a child protection register and being seen by social workers 60 times.
Revelations about Baby P, as the 17-month-old is identified, has triggered outrage and calls for tighter child safety rules. On Monday the local authority involved suspended six members of staff after a damning report.
The British and US experts underlined that their research was not motivated by the Baby P case.
"The important conclusion is that, conservatively, there are a very substantial number of children ... that are being exposed to these very serious negative child experiences that are going to have an impact," said Cathy Widom, a professor at the City University of New York, at a briefing in London.
Professor Ruth Gilbert of University College London said that, based on various academic studies in which individuals were asked about whether they had been abused, and parents about their own disciplinary methods, it was estimated that a tenth of children had experienced some form of maltreatment.
The panel of experts noted, though, that officially recorded figures were much lower.
Horton, meanwhile, called for a "dispassionate review of the evidence around child maltreatment."
The Lancet, in a comment piece on the subject, decried the fact that "too often, the safety of children is debated in the polarising light of litigation or political division."
"Whilst this outcome is inevitable because of the public outrage child maltreatment engenders, a damaging consequence is that the evidence surrounding child neglect and abuse often fails to influence serious policy discussion."
Richard Reading, a paediatrician and academic at the University of East Anglia in eastern England, said he was concerned that prospective social workers could be dissuaded from entering the profession because of the bad publicity attached to it in recent weeks in Britain.