INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -

Indiana, which has long had one of the nation's highest infant mortality rates, must strive to reduce such "heartbreaking" deaths, Gov. Mike Pence said Friday during the first statewide summit focusing on the high death rate among the state's youngest citizens.

Indiana's infant mortality rate was 7.7 deaths per 1,000 live births — the sixth-highest rate in the nation — in 2011, when 643 children died before their first birthday. The national rate in 2011 was 6.05 deaths per 1,000 births. African-American babies had the state's highest death rate in 2011, with 12.3 deaths per 1,000 births.

Pence challenged about 500 state and local health officials, hospital executives, community leaders and others who attended the downtown Indianapolis summit to find ways to reduce the deaths, calling them both "deplorable" and "heartbreaking."

"I want to challenge you today to think fresh about how we confront this challenge, and not in the manner of thinking about this as statistics and numbers we want to move on a scale," he said. "This is not about reducing numbers; it's about reducing heartbreak in Indiana."

Pence, who took office in January, said the top priority of the State Department of Health under his administration is to bring down Indiana's infant mortality rate through a multi-pronged plan the department is drafting. The agency has already set a goal of cutting Indiana's rate to 7.4 infant deaths per 1,000 births by next year and to 6.0 infant deaths per 1,000 by 2020.

The Health Department will debut a statewide public education campaign next year, but state health commissioner Dr. William VanNess told the gathering there's no simple way for Indiana to reduce its infant mortality rate.

Over the past decade, Indiana's infant mortality rate has hovered generally between about 7.5 and 8.0 deaths per 1,000 births. VanNess said its overall infant mortality rate has fallen below seven deaths per 1,000 births only once during the 113 years such records have been kept — in 2008, when the state's rate dipped to 6.95 deaths per 1,000 births.

"We've had a lot of good people really working on this for a lot of years and clearly we haven't moved the dial," VanNess said.

His department has begun working closely with Indiana hospitals, health coalitions and other groups to identify high risk pregnancies, to find ways to expand access to prenatal care and to stress the importance of carrying babies through 39 weeks of pregnancy.

VanNess said elective, induced deliveries play a role in infant mortality because those newborns aren't fully developed and thus are more prone to illnesses.

Premature births, low birth weights and other complications accounted for nearly 46 percent of Indiana's infant deaths in 2011, he said. Serious congenital defects accounted for about a quarter, while sudden infant death syndrome and accidental suffocation by relatives who rolled over onto infants them while sleeping with them claimed many other young lives.

Indiana's high smoking rate also contributes to infant deaths, VanNess said, by increasing the risk of low birth weights and premature births. He said 16.6 percent of Indiana's pregnant women reported that they continued smoking while pregnant, nearly double the national rate.

Among those attending Friday's summit was Terry Jo Curtis, founder of the Indiana Black Breastfeeding Coalition. Curtis said black women in Indiana have the state's lowest breast-feeding rate, and that elevates black infants' risk of illness and death.

Breast milk contains antibodies that boost babies' immune systems, help them fight infections and can reduce their chances of being claimed by SIDS.

Curtis said her Indianapolis-based coalition received a $35,000 federal grant last year that paid for billboards and signs on buses urging black women to breast-feed their babies.

"If we increase our breast-feeding rate, our babies will be better, have less instances of asthma, diarrhea and ear infections," she said, adding that breast-feeding also helps mothers lose weight quicker and reduces their risk of developing breast cancer.

Author: RICK CALLAHAN, Associated Press