BEIJING, Jan 20 (Reuters) - A 16-year-old male student died of bird flu in central China on Tuesday, state media reported, the third death from the H5N1 virus this year.
A health official on Tuesday also confirmed the mother of a toddler infected with the avian virus from the same province had died of pneumonia weeks before, as millions of Chinese flock to poultry markets to buy food ahead of the lunar New Year holiday.
The student died in hospital in Huaihua, in central Hunan province, after developing a fever in neighbouring Guizhou province.
"(Investigations) found the patient had come in contact with birds that had died from sickness before he fell ill," Xinhua news agency quoted a notice from the Hunan Health Bureau as saying.
After not recording a case in almost a year, four human infections have been reported in China in the last two weeks. Three have died, and one remains in hospital.
The H5N1 flu remains largely a virus among birds, but experts fear it could change into a form that is easily transmitted among humans and spark a pandemic that could kill millions of people worldwide.
At least 34 people have been infected in China and 23 have died.
With the world’s biggest poultry population and hundreds of millions of backyard birds, China is seen as critical in the fight to contain bird flu.
China’s State Administration of Industry and Commerce instructed officials to "severely punish" illegal sellers of live poultry and bird flu vaccines, the Farmers’ Daily, a state-run newspaper, said in a report posted on its website (www.farmer.com.cn).
"Severely crack down on the illegal sale of avian vaccines, unvaccinated poultry and poultry products that have died from illness," the paper quoted the industry regulator as saying.
In northern Shanxi province, where a two-year-old girl remains in hospital, authorities have ordered officials to man provincial border control stations around the clock to "prevent the infiltration of disease", the official Shanxi Daily said. (Reporting by Ian Ransom and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)