WEDNESDAY, Nov. 19, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- More babies are being born at full term, resulting in fewer infant deaths, U.S. health officials reported Wednesday.
The death rate among infants dropped 4 percent between 2006 and 2011, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, the number of fetal deaths -- defined in this report as deaths of fetuses at 20 weeks' gestation or later, and commonly referred to as stillbirths -- stayed about the same from 2006 through 2012.
"Although the fetal death rate has remained essentially unchanged from 2006 through 2012, the continued decline in infant deaths is noteworthy," said study author Elizabeth Gregory, a health statistician at the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics.
Dr. David Mendez, a neonatologist at Miami Children's Hospital, said the drop in infant deaths is largely the result of more women carrying their babies to term and the improved ability of hospitals and doctors to care for preterm infants.
"For the most part, we are about as good as we can get when it comes to providing newborn care for high-risk infants," he said.
The problem, Mendez said, is that too many women are still giving birth prematurely. "That's why our infant death rate remains one of the highest of industrialized countries," he noted. "We do as good a job as anywhere in the world in taking care of a high-risk newborn."
But the numbers tell the story, Mendez said. "If you have five babies born that are 24 weeks, one of them is going to die. If you have 50 born, 20 are going to die," he explained.
Mendez thinks better prenatal care and better access to care could decrease the infant death rate by helping more women give birth at 39 weeks.
According to the report, the rate of fetal deaths among whites in 2012 was just under five deaths per 1,000 fetuses. From 2006 to 2012, the rate among blacks was about 11 deaths per 1,000 fetuses, and for Hispanics the rate was just over five per 1,000 fetuses, the researchers found.
For infant deaths, the largest drop was seen among black women, where the rate dropped 8 percent, to almost 11 deaths per 1,000 births in 2011.
The declines in infant deaths varied by state, the researchers found. Between 2005 and 2006 and between 2010 and 2011, the infant death rate dropped 10 percent or more in Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Tennessee. The infant death rate fell less than 10 percent in California, Maryland and Texas.
During the same periods, the infant death rate rose in South Dakota between 2005 and 2006 and from 2010 to 2011. Changes in the rest of the states and the District of Columbia were not statistically significant, the researchers added.
From 2010 to 2011, the infant death rate ranged from almost four per 1,000 births in Vermont to a high of almost nine per 1,000 births in Mississippi.
Alaska, Iowa, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Vermont had rates below five deaths per 1,000 births. Alabama, Delaware, and Mississippi and the District of Columbia, however, had rates higher than eight deaths per 1,000 births.
Visit the March of Dimes for more on newborn death.