NUMBERS OFFER ONE way to chronicle the state of a city: how many residents, how many minutes for police to answer a call, how many employed or jobless. No statistic is more telling of a community’s well-being than its infant mortality rate, because the birth of a healthy child hinges on the basics: good nutrition, access to health care, sound health habits. The significance of the District of Columbia recording a historic low in the number of infant deaths cannot be overstated: It is a cause for celebration and a spur for further action.

A report released by city health officials this week showed an annual infant mortality rate of 8 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, a 24.5 percent decline since 2001, when the mortality rate was 10.6 per 1,000 live births. The fewer deaths came even as the number of births increased from 7,621 to 9,156. Particularly noteworthy are the reductions in deaths of infants born to African American and Hispanic mothers. The numbers are a far cry from the sad days of the 1990s when some parts of the city, mainly neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River in wards 7 and 8, recorded rates of more than 20 deaths per 1,000 births. The decline, officials say, can be traced to fewer teenagers getting pregnant, more women having better access to prenatal care and the adoption of good health habits, such as not smoking.

Those strides didn’t come by accident; they were the result of committed, long-term work by the D.C. government. “It takes a lot of effort to bring it down point by point,” Mohammad Akhter, director of the District’s Health Department, told The Post’s Lena H. Sun in detailing how successive administrations stayed focused on the urgency of the issue. He singled out the move in 2007 by then-mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to expand efforts by community organizations to reach out to vulnerable populations. A vigorous education campaign that focused on HIV/AIDS stressed safer sex, which resulted in fewer teen pregnancies. Visits by Health Department workers to homes in high-poverty areas proved to be effective and so were increased.

The District’s infant mortality rate is still higher than the national rate of 6.1, but Dr. Akhter told us he believes the city can bring its rate down to the national average within two years. Successful practices will continue and be intensified so that specific neighborhoods, rather than wards, can be targeted. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), picking up the baton in the battle against child deaths, is rightly making sure the resources are in place to continue this important fight.