updated 1/18/2009 8:40:32 PM ET 2009-01-19T01:40:32

A 27-year-old woman in northern China has died from bird flu in the country's second death from the disease this year, the Health Ministry said.

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The woman, surnamed Zhang, lived in Jinan city of Shandong province and died Saturday after falling sick on Jan. 5, the ministry said on its Web site late Sunday. The notice did not say how Zhang contracted the virus.

Earlier this month, a 19-year-old woman died from the bird flu virus in a Beijing hospital after contact with ducks in a market in a neighboring province. That was the first death from bird flu since February last year.

Health officials worry that the H5N1 bird flu virus could mutate into a form that could spread easily among people. China, which raises more poultry than any other country, has vowed to aggressively fight the virus.

The case comes at a worrisome time for authorities as tens of millions of people are on the move between cities and rural hometowns for Chinese New Year, which begins on Jan. 26. The Agricultural Ministry has said it will step up checks before the holiday.

A 2-year-old girl in northern China is currently in critical condition after testing positive for bird flu. She fell ill on Jan. 7 in central Hunan province and was taken to a hospital by her grandparents four days later after she returned home to Shanxi province, the Health Ministry said.

The ministry notice did not say how the girl, surnamed Peng, was infected with the H5N1 bird flu virus or what she was doing in Hunan.

"The patient is in critical condition, and the health department of Shanxi province is sparing no efforts" to save the girl, the notice said.

All the people who had close contact with the girl were under medical observation, the ministry said, and no one else has been found ill.

According to the latest World Health Organization figures, bird flu has killed 248 people worldwide since 2003, including 21 in China. The two deaths in China so far this year did not appear to be reflected in the tally.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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