Maryland maintained a record low infant mortality rate for the second year in a row, statistics cheered by state leaders, though the rate continued to outpace the national average.

The statistic shows deaths among infants under a year old and was 6.7 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2011. The rate has dropped by 16 percent since 2008.

That progress represents many infant lives saved, according to Gov. Martin O'Malley and Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who announced the data Wednesday at Anne Arundel Medical Center. Last year, 493 infants died, compared with 617 in 2008.

"The bottom line is that our strategies for driving down infant mortality are saving lives," O'Malley said in a statement. "But progress is never inevitable, it has to be earned. We have to work for it, and therefore our work continues."

The state leaders attributed the decline in deaths to expanded health care access statewide, local public health efforts and education of new parents on safer sleep practices.

Baltimore City saw a slight decrease in the death rate from 2010 to 2011, from 11 deaths per 1,000 live births to 10.5. Only Talbot and Worcester counties on the Eastern Shore had higher rates.

Officials attribute the higher rates in the city and these counties, as well as in Prince George's County, to higher numbers of African-American and poor residents — black infants were three times as likely to die as white infants last year. Efforts are under way to address the disparities.

State officials cited as a model Baltimore's campaign to encourage parents to put their babies to sleep alone, on their backs in a crib, to reduce instances of sudden infant death syndrome, one of the leading causes of death.

City officials say they have included efforts to reduce smoking, encourage early prenatal care and promote proper weight during pregnancy in their effort.

"While overall rates are down, the disparity between black and white is getting even better," said Dr. Oxiris Barbot, city health commissioner. "But the rate of infant mortality for African-Americans is still alarming, and we need to really maximize our collaborative efforts to continue to decrease the rate."

Nationally, the infant mortality rate was 6.1 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2010, the latest year for which data was available. And while the rate that year for white infants in Maryland was below the overall national rate for white infants (4.2 deaths in Maryland versus 5.1 deaths nationally), the rate for black infants in the state remains higher than the national average (11.8 verses 11.6).

The state continues to expand programs officials believe will drive the infant mortality rate down further. They include expansion of family planning services to women with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line through the Medicaid program, creation of a Health Enterprise Zone program that focuses resources and incentives to areas in Maryland with disparities, and implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act, which will give more women access to health insurance.

State efforts are also under way to promote breast feeding and vaccination and to ban crib bumpers linked to a small number of infant deaths by suffocation, said Frances B. Phillips, deputy secretary at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The state also plans to take successful programs, like Baltimore City's B'more for Healthy Babies, and use them to target minority populations on the Eastern Shore where rates rose overall, she said.

"The numbers show that where we have targeted, very aggressive efforts, it's working," Phillips said. "We're always cautious from one year to the next because numbers fluctuate, but this gives us more and more evidence we're headed in the right direction."

Baltimore Sun reporter Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

Infant mortality rates

Per 1,000 live births in 2010 and 2011

Maryland: 6.7 in 2010; 6.7 in 2011