Black infants in the tri-county area died at much higher rates than white infants in 2011, according to data from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Experts say the disparity is a symptom of poverty and other socioeconomic factors, not skin color.

In Dorchester County, black infants were more than six times more likely to die before their first birthday than white babies in the county. Of 1,000 black children born in Dorchester in 2011, an average 16.1 died before turning 1, while only 2.5 white infants out of 1,000 died during the same time period.

In Charleston and Berkeley counties, the infant mortality rate also was much higher among the black population. In Charleston, 11.2 black infants out of 1,000 died and in Berkeley, 15.3 black infants out of 1,000 died. Only 4.3 white infants out of 1,000 died in Charleston and in Berkeley, 3.7 white infants out of 1,000 died.

“The issue is poverty — not race,” said Lisa Van Bergen, executive director of the Charleston-based Florence Crittendon Programs of South Carolina, a group that offers pre- and postnatal services to teenage mothers across the state. “If you’re poor, you’re less likely to get adequate prenatal care. If you’re a teenager, you’re less likely to get adequate prenatal care. If you’re undocumented, you can’t get prenatal care covered by Medicaid.”

Deona Ryan, director of Woman and Children Services at Trident Health’s Summerville Medical Center, agreed that wealth and health care access were better indicators of infant mortality than race.

“A lot of the complications are from socioeconomical impacts,” Ryan said. “If you can’t afford to see a physician, or eat properly, you are more likely to have some complications.”

Mike Smith, maternal and child health epidemiologist at the state health department, said the infant mortality gap is not a problem unique to South Carolina.

“Some of it could be poverty. There’s also a lot of research coming out saying it’s a really complex mix of generational effects,” Smith said. “Across the country for decades, people have been trying to figure out this black-white disparity and there really hasn’t been a clear concrete answer that folks have been able to find.”

Still, Smith noted, infant mortality rates DHEC released last week for the tri-county area matched or beat the statewide rate.

In 2011, 423 babies out of a total 57,338 born in South Carolina died before turning 1 — an infant mortality rate of 7.4 children. That rate, calculated by averaging the number of infants who died before their first birthday out of 1,000 live births, was unchanged from 2010.

The overall infant mortality rate in Charleston County in 2011 was 6.7. In Dorchester County the rate was 7.4. In Berkeley County, the rate was the lowest in the tri-county area at 6.3.

But the fact that South Carolina’s statewide infant mortality rate outpaces the national average of about six infant deaths per 1,000 is not lost on state leaders.

Gov. Nikki Haley addressed the difference in her third annual State of the State speech on Wednesday.

“The United States is falling behind the rest of the world in infant mortality and life expectancy — and here in South Carolina we have one of the lowest life expectancies and highest infant mortality rates in the U.S.,” Haley said.

Afghanistan tops the Central Intelligence Agency’s worldwide list at 121.6 infant deaths per 1,000 babies born.

In South Carolina, the health department named congenital malformations, or birth defects, as the top cause for infant death in 2011.

“(Birth defects) come in all forms of shapes and sizes,” said Dr. Scott Sullivan, director of the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina and a founding member of the South Carolina Birth Outcomes Initiative.

“It’s a complex set of problems. It’s not just one problem,” he said. “The simplest, most direct thing we can do is get early prenatal care and to take folic acid, which has been shown to reduce instances of spinal defects and brain defects. That is the No. 1 thing we can do. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fix the whole problem.”

Premature birth and sudden infant death syndrome were the second and third leading causes of infant death in South Carolina in 2011, according to the health department.

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.