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[BEIJING] China has confirmed its first human death from bird flu, along with a second suspected death and another confirmed human infection.

On 16 November the Ministry of Health said that a 24-year-old woman who died in Anhui province on 10 November was infected with the H5N1 bird flu virus.

The woman had come into contact with dead poultry shortly before falling ill.

A nine-year-old boy from Hunan province was also confirmed to have been infected with H5N1. His village had suffered an outbreak of the virus in poultry.

The boy developed flu-like symptoms on 10 October but recovered after being treated in hospital. His 12-year-old sister, however, died on 17 October after showing similar symptoms.

"Samples from the girl are inadequate for testing, and the cause of her death will probably never be known with certainty," says the World Health Organization (WHO) website.

People who have been in close contact with those confirmed or suspected to have been infected are being monitored for signs of the disease. None has shown any symptoms.

Henk Bekedam, head of the WHO's Chinese office, said yesterday (17 November) that he does not expect bird flu to infect a large number of people in China.

Bekedam warned, however, that China faces special challenges in fighting the disease, despite what he called "impressive" commitment from the government.

Last month, the Chinese health ministry denied rumours that the two patients from Hunan had bird flu. It accepted last week that H5N1 infection could not be ruled out.

Institutions across China have scaled up efforts to face the threat posed by the virus. On Monday (14 November) the country's science ministry gave its approval to clinical trials of a human vaccine against H5N1 jointly developed by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Beijing-based Sinovac Biotech.

The trials are expected to begin within four months.

The science ministry says that if H5N1 becomes capable of spreading between people and sparks a human flu pandemic, the vaccine would be mass-produced even if the trials had not been completed.

The WHO says that since December 2003, bird flu has infected 130 people in Asia and killed 67 of them.

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