State leaders are trying to tackle South Carolina’s relatively high infant mortality rate, but new data published Wednesday by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is not encouraging.

The number of babies who died before their first birthday in South Carolina increased almost three percent from 2011 to 2012.

In 2012, 435 infants died in South Carolina, up from 423 in 2011.

That equals an infant mortality rate of 7.6 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2012, up from 7.4 in 2011. The rate was stagnant from 2010 to 2011.

Dr. Lisa Waddell, DHEC’s deputy director of preventive health services, called the uptick “not statistically significant.”

“Nonetheless, it’s still a reminder that we have real challenges with infant mortality in the state and we need to continue working on the issues,” Waddell said.

In Charleston and Dorchester counties the infant mortality rate was better than the state average. In Charleston County, the 2012 infant mortality rate was 5.8 and in Dorchester County it was 4.9. In Berkeley County the infant morality rate in 2012 was 8.1.

Looking back 20 years, the infant mortality rate peaked in South Carolina at 10.3 in 1999.

The federal government estimates the U.S. infant mortality rate at 5.9 this year.

The rate is much higher for minority infants in South Carolina. For example, in Berkeley County, the infant mortality rate for black infants was 20.3 in 2012, compared to 3.8 for white infants.

Statewide, black infants died approximately 2.3 times more frequently than white infants in 2012.

The leading causes of infant death for all babies in 2012 were congenital malformations, disorders related to short gestation and low birthweight, accidents and “other” causes.

Infant deaths attributed to accidents increased almost 37 percent from 2011 to 2012.

The most common accident, accounting for 39 infant deaths last year, was accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed.

“Most of these could be preventable,” Waddell said.

She recommends that parents and caregivers follow the “A,B,C’s of safe sleep.” In other words, babies should kept alone, without blankets or stuffed animals, on their backs in their cribs.

A group called the Birth Outcomes Initiative, which includes doctors and health care leaders across South Carolina, is trying to promote infant health to improve the mortality rate.

Its efforts include an agreement, signed by all hospitals in South Carolina, that doctors will no longer elect to deliver babies before 39 weeks of gestation.

The Birth Outcomes Initiative was organized in 2011 and it’s too soon to expect improvement in the infant mortality rate yet, Waddell said.

“Whenever you’re looking at data, it does lag behind,” she said.

The Birth Outcomes Initiative will host its second annual symposium in Columbia next month.

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.