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9 more dead birds wash up in Hong Kong

HONG KONG -- Hong Kong health officials were investigating Wednesday whether 21 dead birds that recently washed up on the territory's beaches came from mainland China, where five people have died of bird flu this year.

Of the birds found in the past week, three tested positive for the H5 avian flu, though it was not yet clear which strain they had, according to spokeswoman Sally Kong with the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. The deadly H5N1 strain has been blamed for killing at least 254 people worldwide since 2003, but the H5N2 strain poses no danger to humans.

Tests have also shown two birds were free of the virus. The others, including the nine found on Tuesday, are waiting to be tested, Kong said. All 21 were found around Hong Kong's Lantau Island.

The latest findings added fuel to fears the dead birds might have come from mainland China, where the H5N1 strain has infected at least eight people, including five who later died.

“The finding of eight human infections in one month is an indicator of something unusual that has happened in mainland China,” said infectious disease specialist Lo Wing-lok in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has recorded no human bird flu cases this year, but seven people have died since the territory's biggest outbreak in 1997. The last death was in February 2003.

Lo said the dead birds might have washed ashore from neighboring Guangdong province.

Officials said earlier they were investigating prevailing water currents and whether illegal backyard poultry were kept in the area because there were no poultry farms near where the dead birds were found.

In China, no sick poultry have been found in the areas where the patients fell ill this year, despite officials inspecting hundreds of thousands of birds. This could mean that surveillance needs to be tightened or that poultry may be carrying the virus but not showing symptoms or falling sick. Vaccinations also reduce the amount of virus circulating, but low levels of H5N1 may still be causing outbreaks without the obvious signs of dying birds.

The WHO has said the lack of reports of poultry outbreaks raised questions about the strength of China's surveillance system.

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