BEIJING (Reuters) - The spread of a deadly strain of bird flu in China is slowing, health authorities said on Thursday, as they vowed to tighten controls on markets and the transport of live poultry to battle the virus.
As many as 79 people died from H7N9 bird flu in January, the government has said, or up to four times more than the corresponding figure in previous years, stoking worries this season's spread of the virus could be the worst on record.
Authorities have warned against panic and urged precautions, but nevertheless the numbers triggered concern of a repeat of previous health crises, such as the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002.
From Sunday to Tuesday this week, eight new human infections of H7N9 avian flu were reported, indicating the rate had slowed from the previous reporting period, the National Health and Family Planning Commision said on its website.
"The national epidemic situation clearly shows a downwards trend," it said.
From Feb. 6 to Feb. 12, 69 new cases, including 8 deaths, had been reported, with just three of the 69 reported on Sunday.
To fight the spread, the commission is urging stronger monitoring, besides suspending or permanently closing live poultry markets and tightening curbs on bird transport, it said.
"Once the virus is discovered, immediately investigate and take targeted measures to prevent the epidemic's spread," it added.
Chicken prices have sunk in the world's second largest poultry consumer.
The spread of the virus among fowl in China follows major outbreaks in poultry flocks in neighboring South Korea and Japan.
Exposure to live poultry markets is the "crucial factor" in human infections, the health commission said, adding that the virus had not mutated to spread from human to human.
The greatest fear is that a deadly strain of avian flu could mutate into a pandemic form that can be passed easily between people.
The World Health Organization has said it had not been able to rule out limited human-to-human spread in two clusters of China's cases.
Though H7N9 has spread widely and early this year, most cases were confined to the same areas as in previous years, including the Yangtze River delta and the southern region of Guangdong, said influenza expert Shu Yuelong.
On Saturday, Beijing reported its first human H7N9 case this year, a 68-year-old man from Langfang city in the neighboring province of Hebei. A second human case was reported on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel)