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[BEIJING] China confirmed yesterday (8 August) that one of its citizens died of bird flu in November 2003 — two years before the country's first official death.

The 24-year old soldier's death was originally attributed to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). But in June, Chinese scientists reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that they had found no trace of the SARS virus in the man's tissue samples.

The researchers, led by Cao Wuchun of the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences, suggested that bird flu might have been to blame, prompting the government to investigate.

Researchers from the Ministry of Health, the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences and the World Health Organization (WHO) have now identified the H5N1 virus in the man's tissue samples, according to the Ministry of Health website.

China had previously said its first human case of bird flu occurred in November 2005. The newly confirmed case is now the first in the current outbreak, previously thought to have started in Vietnam in January 2004.

It is still unclear how the soldier became infected with H5N1. The Ministry of Health said that he did not travel for at least two weeks prior to his illness and there was no reported outbreak among poultry in Beijing.

Cao declined to be interviewed.

Roy Wadia, spokesman for the WHO's Beijing office, says the case highlights the importance of detecting H5N1 early.

"We have recommended that the Chinese government share this virus sample with colleagues worldwide, because it might be very useful in revealing the genetic evolution of H5N1," he told SciDev.Net.

China Daily reports that Mao Qun'an, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health, said that the latest scientific finding "reminds China to improve its disease reporting mechanisms by including scientific and research institutions in the system".

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