COLUMBIA -- South Carolina has pushed its rate of infant deaths down four years in a row thanks in part to an aggressive campaign by public and private health providers, church groups and the March of Dimes, officials said Wednesday.

"We all just got really busy," said Dr. Lisa Waddell, deputy commissioner of Health Services for the Department of Health and Environmental Control. "We are saving babies' lives in our state. It is very, very exciting."

Waddell said the most recent statistics show the 2009 infant mortality rate was 7.1 deaths for each 1,000 live births. That's down from the rate of 8.0 deaths for each 1,000 live births in 2008. In 2005, the rate was 9.5 deaths per 1,000 live births, she said.

DHEC reported Wednesday the overall decline was due to a decrease in accidental suffocations in bed and a drop in cases of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which is the sudden, unexpected death of a baby less than a year old that has no explanation.

In a statement, DHEC Commissioner Earl Hunter said the leading causes of death among infants less than a year old remains congenital malformations and disorders among infants born prematurely or too small.

Hunter said the 2009 rate also represents the fourth year in a row that the infant mortality rates show a decline among blacks, but that those rates remain a concern.

"Minority women still experience infant mortality rates at 2.1 times the rate of white women. Eliminating this disparity must remain a priority," Hunter said.

Hunter pointed to work by the nonprofit organization March of Dimes in helping achieve the drop in deaths.

Kathryn Douglas, the director for the South Carolina chapter, said the organization put $350,000 into educating families on safe sleep practices, smoking cessation, and helping mothers stay healthy.

"We know these programs work and finding creative solutions with our state partners is critical in saving our state's smallest citizens,' Douglas said.

In an interview, Waddell said South Carolina registered 430 infant deaths in 2009, but that amounted to 74 fewer deaths than the year before.

Waddell said the state's public health system worked with private doctors to educate mothers and families about the importance of keeping blankets and other items out of an infant's crib.

Hospitals provided DVDs to mothers and families to help educate all care-givers about safe sleep tips, she said.

"We had billboards, we had public health staffers make presentations to church groups," she said.

Getting women to stop smoking, get exercise and maintain a proper diet prior to pregnancy also is key, Waddell said. Preventing and managing chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes is a challenge, she added.

The private-public health network also identified putting mothers in hospitals where neonatal specialists would be available if they had any health issues, Waddell said.

"A healthy mother is the first step to a healthy baby," Waddell said.