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HONG KONG (Reuters) - A woman in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong has died of the H5N1 bird flu virus, which she probably contracted from sick poultry she kept in her backyard, Hong Kong government health officials said on Monday.
The 44-year-old migrant worker, who was employed in Haifeng county in the eastern part of Guangdong, tested positive for H5N1 in a test by Guangdong's Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, and the Health Ministry in Beijing has to confirm the result.
"This lady kept some chickens in her backyard and they became sick and died during the incubation period of her illness. She also ate some of the chickens herself," said Thomas Tsang, controller of Hong Kong's Centre for Health Protection.
"The most likely route of transmission was from the sick poultry she kept and she acquired avian influenza from this source."
Eating well-cooked meat is safe but experts have long warned about handling H5N1-tainted animals or meat without protection.
The woman developed symptoms of fever, cough and pneumonia on February 16, but was only admitted to the county hospital on February 22, after first seeking treatment at a local clinic, according to a statement from Guangdong's health department.
"The patient's condition was too serious and she died on Monday after treatment failed," it said (www.gdwst.gov.cn).
The latest case follows two confirmed deaths from bird flu in China this year, one in central Hunan province and the other in the southern region of Guangxi. In December, a man in the eastern province of Jiangsu also died from the disease.
The spate of cases is a concern for a country that has the world's biggest poultry population, many of them backyard birds roaming free. China has struggled to combat the virus with mass inoculations for birds and an education campaign for those who handle them.
There was no sign of further cases of the virus that scientists fear could mutate into a form that can pass easily between people, sparking a global pandemic.
"All those who have had close contact with the patient have shown no similar symptoms so far," the statement said.
The case in Guangdong has rattled nerves in Hong Kong, which lies just south of the province.
Tsang said the city would strengthen disease surveillance on both poultry and people entering Hong Kong.
"If a person has signs of pneumonia and has visited Guangdong in the past 6 months, he will be tested for avian flu," he said.
Of the 29 cases confirmed to date in China, 19 have been fatal. According to WHO data, there have been 232 human deaths globally from the H5N1 strain and 366 confirmed cases of infection since 2003.
Reporting by Donny Kwok and Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong and Guo Shipeng and Lindsay Beck in Beijing; Editing by Ken Wills and Alex Richardson