By Shilpa Jamkhandikar
MUMBAI (Reuters) -India's COVID-19 outbreak has stabilised in parts of the country, a government official said, but deaths rose by 4,194 on Saturday and infections were spreading in rural areas where public health services are scarce and already overstretched.
India reported more than 400,000 infections a day in early May but the numbers have gradually eased. On Saturday, government data showed 257,299 new cases.
Active cases in the richest state of Maharashtra and Karnataka, home to the tech hub of Bengaluru, and the coastal state of Kerala had fallen in the last two weeks, health ministry official Lav Agarwal told reporters.
Daily numbers in states including West Bengal, which recently concluded state elections, and the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu were on the rise, he said.
With hospitals overflowing, the health system overwhelmed in the cities and a shortage of vaccines, experts have warned India could face a third wave of infections in coming months.
"While it (spread of coronavirus) has stabilised in many parts of the country, and overall the burden has been lessened, we have a long way to go with this wave," Dr. V. K. Paul, part of a federal government panel on COVID-19 management, told a news conference.
"For the first time, we have seen that rural areas have been affected in this pandemic."
Total infections in the country stood at 26.3 million, the second highest in the world after the United States, while the country's total death toll was 295,525.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and state authorities have faced widespread criticism for failing to counter the pandemic as many officials gear up for another surge.
The slow pace of vaccination in the country is another major concern.
New Delhi's chief minister said city authorities had been forced to halt vaccinations for those aged between 18 and 44 as supplies had run out.
The chief minister of Andhra Pradesh urged Modi to help with supplies as the state had no stocks to vaccinate those aged below 45.
Case numbers also rose in neighbouring Nepal, which on Saturday said it had added 8,591 infections in 24 hours to take its total count above the half-million mark.
(Reporting by Tanvi Mehta in New Delhi, Shilpa Jamkhandikar in Mumbai, Sudarshan Varadhan in Chennai and Gopal Sharma in Kathmandu; Editing by Aditya Kalra, William Mallard and Nick Macfie)