updated 2/4/2009 1:50:32 PM ET 2009-02-04T18:50:32

Three of the 21 dead birds that recently washed up on Hong Kong's shores tested positive for the deadly strain of bird flu, the government said Wednesday.

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Officials were investigating whether the birds came from mainland China, where five people have died from the H5N1 virus this year.

A dead goose and two dead ducks were found infected with H5N1, blamed for killing at least 254 people worldwide since 2003, the Hong Kong government said in a statement.

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

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

"The finding of eight human infections in one month is an indicator of something unusual 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.

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.

While the disease remains hard for humans to catch, scientists have warned if outbreaks among poultry are not controlled, the virus may mutate into a form more easily passed between people, possibly triggering a pandemic that could kill millions worldwide.

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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