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Human bird flu in China, one dead

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Man eats noodles next to freshly killed chickens at Beijing market.

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BEIJING, China (CNN) -- The World Health Organization confirmed two human cases of bird flu in China, including a female poultry worker who died from the H5N1 strain of avian influenza.

China's Ministry of Health has confirmed three human cases -- two in central China's Hunan Province and one in east China's Anhui Province -- according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

But WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said the organization does not have enough samples to confirm if a 12-year-old girl who died on October 17 contracted the virus, because she was cremated.

Thompson said the two confirmed cases include the girl's 9-year-old brother, who fell ill last month in Hunan but survived, and a 24-year-old female poultry worker in Anhui who died from the virus November 10.

China has reported 11 outbreaks in chickens and ducks nationwide over the past month, prompting authorities to destroy millions of birds in an effort to contain the virus. The government also announced an ambitious effort Tuesday to vaccinate the country's more than 14 billion farm birds.

Experts are especially worried about the potential for bird flu to spread and mutate in China because of its vast poultry flocks and their close contact with people. It also is a major migration route for wild fowl, which experts say might be spreading the virus.

Xinhua did not elaborate on the human cases. Chinese officials initially said the girl, her brother and a schoolteacher who all fell ill had tested negative for bird flu. But the government reopened the investigation and asked WHO for assistance.

WHO experts traveled to Hunan this week.

The government had not previously disclosed any suspected human cases in Anhui, where an October 20 outbreak in the city of Tiancheng killed about 550 birds.

Experts also are testing a poultry worker who fell ill in the northeastern province of Liaoning, which has suffered four outbreaks. All farm birds in the province were ordered vaccinated early this month, said Fu Jingwu, deputy director of the provincial Animal Health Supervision and Management Bureau.

He said the effort covered 320 million birds. The province also has destroyed more than 15 million chickens, ducks and other birds.

Also Wednesday, the State Council, which is China's Cabinet, discussed enacting regulations on bird flu prevention, epidemic monitoring and emergency contingency plans, state television said.

The council also said it would offer tax breaks and subsidies to help counter the effects of bird flu outbreaks.

Avian influenza has spread rapidly among birds, first in Southeast Asia and more recently in Europe. However, human cases have only been reported in Asia.

More than 125 people have been infected with the H5N1 avian flu strain in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About half of those have died.

Earlier this month, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on the international community to make immediate preparations for a possible pandemic of bird flu.

While it is not yet clear if the H5N1 strain will gain the ability to infect large numbers of people, Annan said world leaders cannot ignore the threat it poses.

The first instance of avian influenza passing from birds to humans was H5N1 in 1997 in Hong Kong. Eighteen people were infected, and six people died -- though the outbreak was limited to Hong Kong.

To control the outbreak, authorities killed about 1.5 million chickens in the Special Administrative Region to remove the source of the virus.

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