By Erik Derr ( | First Posted: Apr 17, 2013 09:03 PM EDT

(Photo : Creative Commons)

Early childhood deaths in the United States have declined 12 percent since 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Six in 1,000 children died within their first year in 2011 compared with 6.9 per 1,000 in 2005, the data indicated.

 "We should feel pretty proud about this, because it takes a lot to change population statistics," said Carol Miller, a clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco who wasn't involved in the report, told Bloomberg. "We've been struggling with this issue for quite some time."

The world's highest estimated infant mortality rate in 2012 was in Afghanistan, at a rate of 121 children per 1,000 births, while the lowest was in Monaco, with 1.8 deaths occurring per 1,000 births, according to the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA further estimates 6 children per 1,000 live births died in the U.S. last year, a higher rate than Canada or the United Kingdom.

The leading cause of infant death in the U.S. was birth defects, the data said, followed by premature births.  Those health issues, along with sudden infant death syndrome, maternal complications and unintentional injuries, accounted for more than half of the infant deaths in 2011.

 "We've seen a recent decline in preterm births, which is good because babies who are born too soon have much higher infant mortality rates," said study author Marian MacDorman, a senior statistician at the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Maryland. "One thing we think helped the preterm birth situation was trying to prevent medical interventions such as early C-sections and inductions."

The drop in domestic infant mortality was most rapid in Southern states, the CDCP reported, as Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and the District of Columbia had declines of 20 percent or more in their 2010, compared with 2005.

The report explained the Southern region had been "persistently high" for "many years."

Babies, it was found, were more likely to die after birth in Mississippi and Alabama, which had mortality rates of 8 per 1,000 infant births or higher.

Infant mortality declined most for babies born to black women, dropping 16 percent. That's a significant turn-around, since infants historically have been twice as likely to die in their first year if their mothers are black, compared with those born to white mothers.

The higher rates are likely tied to less access to quality care, poor health, a lack of education about good health practices and discrimination, Miller said.

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