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World

India dengue fever epidemic raises global concern

NEW DELHI — An epidemic of dengue fever in India is fostering a growing sense of alarm even as government officials have publicly refused to acknowledge the scope of a problem that specialists say is threatening hundreds of millions of people, not just in India but around the world.

India has become the focal point for a mosquito-borne plague that is sweeping the globe. Reported in just a handful of countries in the 1950s, dengue is now endemic in half the world’s nations.

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“The global dengue problem is far worse than most people know and keeps getting worse,’’ said Raman Velayudhan, the World Health Organization’s lead dengue coordinator.

The tropical disease, though life-threatening for a tiny fraction of those infected, can be extremely painful for many who catch it. Growing numbers of Western tourists are returning from warm-weather vacations with the disease, and it has pierced the shores of the United States and Europe. Last month, health officials in Miami announced a case of locally acquired dengue infection.

In India’s capital, hospitals are overrun, and feverish patients are sharing beds and languishing in hallways. At Kalawati Saran Hospital, a pediatric facility, a large crowd of relatives lay on mats and blankets under the shade of a huge banyan tree outside the hospital entrance recently.

Among them was Neelam, who said her two grandchildren were deathly ill inside. Sneha, 8, got the disease first, followed by Tanya, 7, she said. The girls’ parents treated them at home but then Sneha’s temperature rose to 104 degrees, a rash spread across her legs and shoulders, and her pain grew unbearable.

‘‘Sneha has been given 5 liters of blood,’’ said Neelam, who has one name. ‘‘It is terrible.’’

Officials say that 30,002 people in India had been sickened with dengue fever through October, a 59 percent jump from the 18,860 recorded for all of 2011. But the real number of Indians who get dengue fever annually is in the millions, several specialists said.

Twenty years ago, just 1 of every 50 tourists who returned from the tropics with fever was infected by dengue; now, it is 1 in 6, said Velayudhan, the WHO official.

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