BEIJING - A woman in eastern China has died from the H5N1 strain of bird flu, the Health Ministry said, the second death from the virus this year as the country's biggest festive season approaches and contact with poultry increases.

The woman, whose surname was Zhang, lived in Jinan, the capital 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, 27, contracted the virus or give other details.

A man who answered the telephone at the Shandong health department refused to comment and hung up. A woman at the Jinan health bureau said the official in charge was not available.

The fatality comes less than two weeks after a 19-year-old woman died from the H5N1 virus in a Beijing hospital after buying and cleaning ducks in a market in a neighbouring province. It was the first death from bird flu since last February.

Also Monday, a 2-year-old girl sickened by H5N1 was in critical condition in the northern province of Shanxi.

The cases come at a worrisome time for Chinese authorities as tens of millions of people are on the move between cities and rural hometowns for Lunar New Year, the country's biggest holiday, which begins on Jan. 26.

Dishes prepared from freshly slaughtered chicken and duck feature prominently in celebration feasts. This means a potentially greater risk of exposure to sick birds as people shop in markets and handle poultry or when the birds are transported to be sold, the World Health Organization said.

Health Ministry spokesman Mao Qun'an said last week that the public should minimize contact with poultry, especially sick or dead ones, and that medical institutions should step up surveillance of flu cases, especially during the New Year holiday.

The Agriculture Ministry also ordered that monitoring of epidemics be tightened and that all poultry be properly vaccinated. In a notice released Sunday night, it also said it would increase checks across the country and at borders.

Health officials say that the cold months can bring an increase in bird flu cases because the H5N1 virus can survive longer in cold weather and have a bigger chance of infecting poultry - and possibly humans. Winter is also when many people in rural areas bring live poultry into their homes to protect them from the cold.

Scientists have warned that if outbreaks among poultry are not controlled, the virus may mutate into a form more easily passed between people, potentially resulting in millions of deaths. China, which raises more poultry than any other country, has vowed to aggressively fight the virus.

Meanwhile, the 2-year-old girl was in critical condition after testing positive for H5N1. 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, the Health Ministry said.

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

All 67 people who had close contact were under medical observation, the ministry said, but no one else has been found ill. Poultry farms and markets in areas the child had been had no reported outbreaks, it said.

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