Updated Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 12:58 PM
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 experts 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.
"The global dengue problem is far worse than most people know, and it 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 U.S. and Europe. Last month, health officials in Miami announced a case of locally acquired dengue infection.
In India's capital, hospitals are overrun and 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 entrance recently.
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 experts said.
A senior Indian government health official, who agreed to speak about the matter only on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that official figures represent a mere sliver of dengue's actual toll. Neighboring Sri Lanka, for instance, reported nearly three times as many dengue cases as India through August, according to WHO, even though India's population is 60 times larger.
A central piece of evidence for those who contend that India suffers more cases than the government acknowledges is a as yet unpublished study of infections in West Bengal that found about the same presence of dengue as in Thailand, where almost every child is infected at least once before adulthood.
KEVIN FRAYER / AP
An Indian boy covers his nose as he sits in his shop while a municipal worker, background, fogs for mosquitoes in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Oct. 17.