US Infant Mortality Rate Drops to Milestone Mark; Black-White Gap Persists With AM-CDC-Suicide, Bjt

ATLANTA (AP) _ The U.S. infant mortality rate, long one of the worst in the industrialized world, is improving and reached a milestone: 10 per 1,000 births, the lowest figure ever.

The national Centers for Disease Control reported Thursday final figures for 1988, the latest available, showing a drop from 10.1 in 1987.

''It looks good now that we're approaching the single digits, which would be more comparable to other industrialized nations,'' said Dr. Cynthia Ferre, a CDC reproductive health specialist.

The United States still ranks 21st among industrialized nations in infant mortality; Japan, with a rate of 4.4 per 1,000 births in 1989 data, is first.

The U.S. rate has fallen in the last two decades; in 1970, the rate was 20.

''What's still really troublesome, though, is the discrepancy between blacks and whites,'' Ferre said.

The mortality rate for white infants under age 1 in 1988 was 8.6 per 1,000, less than half the black rate of 17.6.

The drop in infant mortality has slowed since about 1980, the CDC noted.

''One of the hypotheses is that women at increased risk of having low- birthweight babies aren't getting the prenatal care they need,'' Ferre said.

Complications relating to prematurity and low birthweight are the third leading cause of death among infants - fourth among white babies, second among blacks.

The leading cause of death for babies overall, and for white infants, is birth defects. No. 2 - and No. 1 among blacks - is sudden infant death syndrome.

Preliminary data for 1989 - the year Japan reported an infant mortality rate of 4.4 - show the United States at 9.7, according to Liz Godfrey, a statistician with the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics.

For 1990, early data indicate a rate of 9.1, ''which is even more encouraging,'' Ferre said.

The government's national health goals for the year 2000 call for an infant mortality rate of no more than 7 per 1,000.