WASHINGTON -- Infant mortality in the United States declined to a record low last year, but the gap between rates for blacks and whites is growing and is not expected to narrow in the next 15 years, the government reports.
Preliminary data, disclosed yesterday by the National Center for Health Statistics, show that there were 7.9 infant deaths for every 1,000 live births in the United States in 1994, while the figures for 1993 and 1992 were 8.3 and 8.5, respectively.
The rate first fell below 12 per 1,000 in 1981.
Biomedical researchers and sociologists say infant mortality is an important indicator of the overall health and well-being of a population.
In an article published today in the American Journal of Public Health, two government researchers, Gopal Singh and Stella Yu, said the nation's infant mortality rate had declined rapidly since 1950, mainly because of declines in deaths from pneumonia, influenza, birth defects, premature births and low birth weight.
But, they said, the infant mortality rate in the last four decades has declined faster for whites than for blacks, so the long-standing disparity between the races has increased.
In 1950, the rate for blacks was 1.6 times the rate for whites, but in 1991, it was 2.2 times the rate for whites.
The racial disparity is likely to continue through 2010, assuming current trends continue, the authors said. They described their forecasts as statistical extrapolations, with no allowance for possible changes in behavior, medical technology or health insurance coverage.
In an interview, Mr. Singh said blacks accounted for 17 percent of live births but 33 percent of infant deaths in 1992.
In that year, he said, births for all races totaled 4,065,014, and infant deaths totaled 34,628.
The infant mortality rate measures the number of deaths in the first year of life for every 1,000 live births.