Maryland's infant mortality rate fell to a record low last year, state health officials announced.

The state's infant mortality rate dropped 10 percent in 2009, from eight infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 2008 to 7.2 in 2009, according to preliminary numbers from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The rate is the lowest since the state began keeping records in the 1920s.

"We are absolutely pleased with these numbers," said Maryland Deputy Health Secretary Frances Phillips. "We do see year-to-year fluctuations, but nothing has been as promising as this one. This is the lowest."

Phillips credited the drop to the agency's increased efforts in improving women's health. Reducing infant mortality by 10 percent is one of Gov. Martin O'Malley's 15 goals for improving the state's quality of life.

The numbers put Maryland slightly behind Virginia, which had 7.1 infant deaths per 1000 live births in 2008, but far ahead of the District of Columbia, which had 13.1 deaths per 1,000 births in 2007, according to the most recent data.

Nationwide, the infant mortality rate was 6.8 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2007.

The numbers were not as good for Maryland's black residents. Though the infant mortality rate fell for whites in 2009, it increased slightly among blacks, to 13.6 percent from 13.4 in 2008.

Racial disparities for infant mortality are common nationwide, said Wanda Barfield, a pediatrician with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Phillips said public health officials don't know the reasons behind the disparities.

"This is very complex," she said. "Clearly there are risk factors in the minority communities that need to be specifically addressed."

Some of those factors include poor nutrition, domestic violence and fewer visits to doctors, she said.

Phillips said Maryland health officials are concentrating on Baltimore and Prince George's and Somerset counties, where infant mortality rates were highest and where the department has opened women's health clinics.

The leading causes of infant deaths are preterm/low birth weight births, congenital anomalies and sudden infant death syndrome.