MONDAY, July 3, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- The death rate for black infants in the United States has risen in recent years, while the rate for white infants continues to decline, a new study finds.
"The sustained progress in reducing infant mortality among black infants since 2005 has stalled in the past few years. This has led to increases in the absolute inequality in infant mortality between black and white infants during the past three years," said a team led by Corinne Riddell of McGill University in Montreal.
One U.S. pediatrician who reviewed the findings said it's unclear why this racial gap in infant deaths is widening.
"Infant mortality and racial disparities in this outcome are very complex phenomena, and seem to involve both medical care access and other social factors," said Dr. Michael Grosso, chair of pediatrics at Huntington Hospital in Huntington, N.Y.
"We should also wonder whether the rise of opiate and other substance abuse may have indirectly contributed to the rising death rate among infants of color," Grosso added.
The new study looked at 2005-2015 data from a major U.S. government database. Riddell's team found that the death rate for black infants fell from 14.3 to 11.6 per 1,000 births between 2005 to 2012, then plateaued, and then increased -- from 11.4 to 11.7 per 1,000 births between 2014 to 2015.
At the same time, the death rate among white infants declined from 5.7 to 4.8 per 1,000 births between 2005 to 2015, according to the findings published July 3 in JAMA Pediatrics.
Between 2005 and 2011, deaths from premature birth/low birthweight fell for black infants, but then plateaued in recent years.
For the other leading causes of death -- birth defects, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and maternal complications -- rates among black and white infants declined overall between 2005 to 2015. However, death rates from both SIDS and birth defects began to rise again for black infants from 2014 to 2015.
No single cause of death appears solely responsible for the recent increase in the death rate among black infants, Riddell's group said.
According to Grosso, prior research has shown that "racial inequality in employment and education each correlated with infant mortality differences" between black and white babies.
"More study is needed," he said, "as is public policy that aims at reducing, rather than increasing, disparities in access, wealth and health."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on infant deaths.