Pacific Islander and black babies in Utah die at twice the rate of white infants.
The Utah Department of Health recently received a federal grant to find ways to improve mothers' health.
"We've known about the differences for awhile, but we haven't had any way to investigate why people in Utah have these problems," said April Young Bennett, a health specialist in the state's Center for Multicultural Health.
The federal Office of Minority Health awarded the state $130,000 a year for three years to address disparities in infant mortality, obesity and access to health care.
The money will pay for focus groups to find ways to encourage women to be healthy while pregnant, to fund community groups to do outreach work, to train health clinics on providing culturally appropriate care and to promote new health care options under federal health care reform.
Infant death is considered an indicator of health status of a group. If so, the health of Utah Pacific Islanders and blacks lags behind the rest of the state by 20 years, according to the health department. Utah's infant death rate hasn't been as high as Pacific Islanders' or blacks' which is above 8 per 1,000 births, totalling 10 deaths a year since the 1980s.
Bennett said one factor among Pacific Islanders could be obesity. Nearly 40 percent of Pacific Islander women who had babies from 2007 to 2008 were obese, compared to 16 percent of whites. Babies born to obese women are at greater risk of being born prematurely or having birth defects.
"We have lots of obese mothers who are giving birth to children who are dying early," she said, noting that genetics and lifestyle play a role.
She linked blacks' higher infant mortality rates to smoking during pregnancy, with 8 percent of black mothers in Utah smoking during the third trimester, twice the state rate. Smoking during pregnancy is linked to premature births and low birth weight.
Not being able to get health care also contributes to infant mortality. According to a health department review of infant deaths, 35 percent of the ones deemed preventable were associated with the mothers not getting prenatal care or seeking it late.
All Utah minorities are less likely to receive prenatal care than whites, according to health department data.