Foreign embassies in New Delhi are warning travellers away from Rajasthan, a western state whose desert landscape, dotted with fortified palaces, draws thousands of tourists, many of them British, during the winter season, due to begin about now.
Rajendra Rathore, the state health minister, says the malaria scare is exaggerated, and that the official death-toll is under 300. However, Indian Red Cross workers recorded over 500 deaths in four districts - Bikaner, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Barmer. All are well- known tourist destinations.
Some health organisations have said that unless urgent action is taken, 'tens of thousands' could die of malaria in the coming months. More than half the 4 million cattle herders and farmers living in this desert, near India's border with Pakistan, may die unless emergency medical care is rushed to Rajasthan, according to Dr S N Mohnot of Jodhpur University's Faculty of Desert Science.
The outbreak of cerebral malaria is blamed on heavy monsoon rains. For 40 years Rajasthanis had prayed for a good rain, but this year their answered prayers became a curse.
The monsoon left thousands of stagnant ponds in the normally arid region, which became ideal breeding places for mosquitoes carrying the lethal parasite. This form of cerebral malaria resists the common cures.
P V Unnikrishnan, from the Volunteer Health Association of India, said: 'We expect the current outbreak to be over by late November, when the weather turns cold. But we're afraid that these deadly mosquitoes will breed again next year.' Rajasthani officials confirmed that more than 70,711 people have tested positive for cerebral malaria, and state hospitals are swamped under the flood of patients.
The spread of this mosquito- borne killer is being blamed by health experts on a 40-per-cent cut over the past year in the Indian government's malaria- eradication budget. In India's far eastern corner, in Manipur state, another 330 people have died of malaria over the past few months. Most of the victims in Manipur were wandering refugees who had fled tribal warfare between the Kukis and the Nagas.
The Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, called an emergency cabinet meeting over the weekend to combat the malaria epidemic, and to halt its spread to New Delhi, the capital, several hundred miles north of Rajasthan. But in Rajasthan, authorities have not yet begun the crucial task of spraying insecticide on the mosquito breeding ponds left by monsoon rains.
Tourism, a big foreign- exchange earner for India, had already been hit hard by last month's plague scare. Thousands of Europeans, Japanese and US tourists cancelled their Indian holiday plans. Now, with malaria spreading through Rajasthan, the most popular tourism spot after the Taj Mahal, many more tourists will give India a miss this year.
This latest epidemic may not have provoked as much panic as the plague but already it has claimed hundreds more victims.