Plague cases multiplied across India on Wednesday as the scourge spread into the region surrounding Bombay, to the heart of the capital, New Delhi, and across the country to the teeming city of Calcutta.
Nearly 1,000 people have been stricken by the disease, which kills if not treated, authorities in New Delhi said.
The victims included 333 new cases of plague in the western state of Maharashtra, which is south of the city of Surat where the outbreak erupted last week and surrounds Bombay, with its population of about 13 million.
In a development that officials said was especially worrisome, seven confirmed plague victims surfaced in Calcutta and the surrounding region--950 miles northeast of Surat. Another 13 had plague symptoms.
Calcutta, with a population of 4.3 million, is considered one of India's dirtiest cities, and authorities were concerned that the disease could spread quickly within its slums if urgent measures are not taken.
The health minister of West Bengal state, where Calcutta is located, said three men had recently died in the region of plague-like symptoms such as high fever. One of the men died near the border with Bangladesh, Prasant Sur said.
Autopsies were being conducted to determine if the men, all of whom had recently been to Surat, had died of plague.
The emergence of hundreds of cases in Maharashtra and of victims as far away as Calcutta proved that the disease had spread thousands of miles with fugitives from Surat.
More than 300,000 people left that city in panic last week after the first major outbreak of plague in India since 1966 was declared.
Hundreds of people who had taken flight have since come down with high fever, cough, chest pains--symptoms of the disease--and been isolated in hospitals in far-flung regions.
Sixteen new cases of plague were registered in New Delhi, bringing the total number of confirmed victims in the Indian capital to 18--including one doctor who had treated patients.
Delhi State Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said all of the victims had recently been to Surat but were responding favorably to antibiotic treatment.
Vardhan said there were 28 patients with plague symptoms under treatment at Delhi's Infectious Diseases Hospital, up from 22 Wednesday morning. The patients included the 18 whose blood had tested positive for pneumonic plague.
Delhi authorities launched a citywide search for people who had recently been to Surat, where two more people died, raising the death toll there to 46.
More than 600 people in Surat have contracted the disease.
Delhi authorities appealed to doctors and community organizations to track down any people who had recently been to Surat and those who had been in contact with them.
Many of the 28 patients under surveillance in Delhi had been ferreted out by the search operation, he said.
"I feel the whole thing will settle down in the next few days," Vardhan said. "Most people fled Surat the first time around and they are responding very well to treatment, even one man who was in very serious condition a few days ago."