The number of infants who die each year in Maryland has hit a record low for the second consecutive year.
The rate dropped to just 6.7 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2011, according to figures released by the state. That's a 16 percent drop from 2008 and more than double the national rate of decline.
"In human terms that means 124 fewer funerals," Gov. Martin O'Malley said. "In policy terms this is a successful start, but we know it's only a start."
The governor announced the latest numbers for Maryland from Anne Arundel Medical Center—one of the state's largest birthing facilities.
Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, called the hospital "a terrific partner in public health efforts," and a leader in delivery reforms.
"Anne Arundel is also a critical partner in our efforts to improve the picture on the Eastern Shore," Sharfstein said. "Over the last decade we have seen huge improvements across the state, but actually the rate for infant mortality in parts of the Eastern Shore has been headed in the wrong direction. It is a major area of focus."
Talbot and Worcester counties both reported a rise in infant mortality rates.
In contrast, Anne Arundel County's number is below both the state and national average, said Dr. Angela Wakhweya, the health officer for the Anne Arundel County Department of Health.
"In Anne Arundel County the infant mortality rate is 4.7 per 1,000 live births," Wakhweya said. "So we have actually exceeded the Maryland rate."
The U.S. infant mortality rate was 6.1 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2010. National data for 2011 has not been released.
One of the contributing factors to reducing infant mortality is increasing access to women's healthcare centers, one of which operates in Arnold. Special Beginnings Birth & Women's Center opened in 1997, and in May celebrated its 15th anniversary with its 1,500th baby.
Special Beginnings' Director Ann Sober said the center offers a variety of classes for women, and have a lactation consultant on staff. Increasing access to women's health care and making them feel comfortable during a birth is vital to ensuring a healthy outcome in labor, Sober said.
"I think that our center encourages women to come in earlier, and earlier care equates to better outcomes," she said. "I think this type of environment, where women can feel accepted and build upon a base of good prenatal care, can improve that outcome dramatically."
Unfortunately, Sober said, there aren't enough birth centers in the state to make a huge impact.
Both O'Malley and Sharfstein credited the extension of prenatal and postnatal care through programs like Maryland's Children's Health Program (MCHP), Women Infants and Children (WIC) and the implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act with the decline in infant deaths.
Sharfstein pointed specifically to outreach programs in Baltimore about safe sleep practices as a large contributor to the decline in African American infant deaths.
"We exceeded the national rate of decline both for African Americans and whites in the state of Maryland from 2008 to 2010," Sharfstein said.
But national data for 2010 showed the rate for black infant deaths remains higher in Maryland than it does nationally at 11.8 versus 11.6 percent.
O'Malley said the over-sized chart highlighting the decline in Maryland's infant mortality since 1980 represented one of "the most beautiful sights in all of state government," but he said he thought the state still has a lot of work to do.
"Think of what one life means to a mother and father. What does it mean to all of us?" he said.
His administration plans to promote programs that encourage new moms to breast feed and quit smoking. The state will also be an early adopter of the Affordable Care Act, and it's looking into a ban on crib bumpers, which Sharfstein said have been linked to a small number of suffocation deaths.