U.S. Infant Mortality Dropped 20 Percent During 1990s

Infant mortality in the United States dropped 20 percent in the 1990s, health officials said Thursday, crediting a push for prenatal care and new technology that helps keep low-birthweight babies alive.

Nearly 28,000 infants died in 1999, or seven for every 1,000 live births, the National Center for Health Statistics said. The rate in 1990 was 8.9 deaths for every 1,000 live births.

"This is very good news," NCHS demographer T.J. Mathews said. "But the rate is still too high in the U.S. Everybody agrees on that."

U.S. infant mortality rate is still higher than that of many other developed countries. In Sweden, for example, the rate is roughly three deaths for every 1,000 live births, according to UNICEF. Health officials want to see the U.S. figure down to 4.5 by the end of this decade.

The study found that babies born to women who smoke died at a 59 percent higher rate in 1999. And seeking care in the first trimester of pregnancy appeared to cut the risk of infant mortality by nearly one-third.

Prenatal care was a key part of health officials' battle against infant mortality in the 1990s, Mathews said. Hospital technology advances to keep low-weight babies alive paid off as well: From 1995 to 1999 alone, the infant mortality rate for babies born at less than 3.3 pounds fell by 8 percent.

"There continue to be women who smoke during pregnancy, and that is a treatable item," Mathews said. "The rate is so much higher for women who smoke. That tells us something can really be done."

The report illustrated some disturbing disparities.

Infant mortality continues to strike black mothers disproportionately — 14 deaths for every 1,000 live births in 1999, compared with 5.8 for white mothers.

And Southern states crowd the top of the list of highest infant mortality rates. Mississippi had the highest rate, at 10.3 deaths for every 1,000 live births from 1997 to 1999. New England and Western states had the lowest, with New Hampshire at 4.8.

Health officials said those racial and geographic gaps reflect a much larger medical trend: Blacks and Southerners tend not to have access to — or in some cases not to seek — high-quality medical care.