A person's chances of either being healthy or developing a chronic disease like diabetes or hypertension may have been determined in the womb, during the forty weeks of gestation.
Evidence shows that birth weight has a far-reaching impact on health.
"We know how children ought to grow once they're born. But what we don´t know is how to ensure that during pregnancies foetuses grow at an appropriate rate," says Alan Jackson, Professor at the Institute of Human Nutrition of the University of Southampton and convenor of the International Malnutrition Task Force.
"So what we first need to do is describe what an appropriate rate is, using healthy pregnancies as a standard."
To help draw a definitive link between foetal growth rates and health in later life, a new study by the World Health Organization (WHO) will use three-dimensional (3D) ultrasound images to gather data from 1 000 women in 11 countries, comparing foetal growth rates.
The same 1 000 infants studied during gestation will then be followed closely over the first two years of their lives. Scientists at the IAEA and WHO plan to precisely measure the children´s growth and development by using "stable isotope techniques" to monitor how the children accumulate muscle and fat.
For the past decade, the IAEA has assisted Member States acquire and use the instrumentation needed to perform these measurements. "This capacity has created an enabling environment to move ahead with the planned study," says Lena Davidsson, Head of the IAEA´s Nutritional and Health-related Environmental Studies Section.
"This data will help us connect what happens in utero with what happens in the first two years of life. Those years are the most critical for a child. If you want to provide children with better prospects for survival, health and productivity during adulthood, you need to intervene during pregnancy and up until the first two years of life," says Davidsson.
The WHO project using 3D ultrasound to track foetal growth, is being conducted by experts in obstetrics in 11 countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Norway and Thailand.
In 3D ultrasound, sound waves are sent at different angles and reflected back to produce an image of the foetus. One is then able to see width, height and depth. Ultrasonography allows doctors to identify problems early and decide on the best intervention strategy.
Mario Merialdi, who is in charge of Improving Maternal and Perinatal Health at the WHO, says, "The information we get from the study will be used to create foetal growth standards that will give invaluable guidance to health professionals, making the practice of medicine more responsive to the needs of the poorest populations, those who need the most help and attention."