The World Health Organisation said Tuesday there was no evidence of a bird flu epidemic in China after a fifth person died of the disease this month, but urged caution in the Lunar New Year holiday.
An 18-year-old man succumbed to the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus Monday, bringing to five the number of fatalities from the disease so far this year in China, compared to just three in the whole of 2008.
The number of cases has sparked fears of an epidemic, particularly during this week's Lunar New Year, as hundreds of millions of families across China reunite around huge feasts that include poultry.
Peter Cordingley, WHO spokesman for the Western Pacific Region, said there was no need for undue alarm.
"What we are seeing is so far within our expectations and broadly matches previous years," he told AFP. "There is no evidence of an epidemic.
"Also, the China cases are geographically scattered and sporadic, with no sign of any connection between them."
Cordingley urged caution during the biggest holiday of the year in China, saying the mass movement of people and poultry brought a heightened risk of humans mingling with chickens.
"(This) is not a situation we are comfortable with, and the increase in consumption of chicken meat presents dangers of people unknowingly handling infected meat," he said.
"Members of the public should take every precaution when preparing chicken meat for the table."
China is considered one of the nations most at risk of bird flu epidemics because it has the world's biggest poultry population and many chickens in rural areas are kept close to humans.
The H5N1 virus typically spreads from birds to humans via direct contact, but experts fear that it could mutate into a form easily transmissible between humans, with the potential to kill millions in a pandemic.
Cold weather also encourages the spread of the virus and large swathes of China have been hit by sub-zero temperatures in recent days. All three of last year's deaths occurred in the first two months of the year.
The first fatality in 2009 occurred on January 5 when a 19-year-old woman died in Beijing.
Then a 27-year-old woman died away in the eastern province of Shandong, and a 16-year-old boy died last week in the central province of Hunan, although he had initially fallen ill in neighbouring Guizhou.
A 31-year-old woman succumbed to the disease Friday in northwest China's Xinjiang region.
Some of the victims had come into contact with dead or sick poultry before falling ill, according to previous health ministry statements.
Cordingley said this indicated there was a problem with animal surveillance in China.
At least two other people in China have fallen ill to avian influenza this month, including a two-year-old girl in the northern province of Shanxi who is now out of danger, the official Xinhua news agency reported last week.
The agency said Monday the other patient, a 29-year-old who had contracted the disease in Guizhou, was now in a "stable" condition.
So far, 25 people have died from avian influenza in China since the disease re-emerged in 2003, according to World Health Organisation figures.