Objective: To review the phenomenon of child abuse and neglect from a public health perspective.
Data sources: Literature review before the publication of the landmark article by the pediatrician C. Henry Kempe and coworkers in 1962, "The battered-child syndrome", and selected publications until the end of 1999.
Study selection: Studies published in the period before the discovery of the battered-child syndrome, studies after that publication dealing with the definition of child abuse and neglect, epidemiology of child abuse, fatal child abuse, child sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and domestic violence.
Data extraction: Studies or data linked to child physical abuse, neglect, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, structural abuse, other forms of abuse and domestic violence.
Data synthesis: In the 19th century more understanding for children's rights was acknowledged and in the 20th century child abuse was discovered in 1962 after many years of "looking with the blind eye". The number of reported cases of child abuse world wide has ever since exploded into a public health epidemic with a ten times higher incidence than cancer (child abuse rate: 40 per 1,000 population; cancer 3.9 per 1,000 population.
Conclusions: Child abuse and neglect is complex, involving many professionals and agencies, which can be one of the reasons why the field has not been able to attract enough resources for prevention, treatment, education, and research. Child abuse must be looked upon as a major public health problem, and professionals must enter the new century with an effort to really make it a "century for the child."