China is to ban imports of poultry from Vietnam and Japan in a bid to protect itself from the highly contagious bird flu virus, according to state media.

China has already halted poultry imports from South Korea, which along with Japan and Vietnam, has been hit by outbreaks of the virus, reported Agence France-Presse.

Thousands of chickens have died of bird flu in recent weeks, and at least three people are also thought to have died from the disease.

China is mainly a poultry exporter, rather than an importer, so the outbreaks in neighbouring countries are unlikely to affect the country’s domestic poultry market, AFP said.

Meanwhile, the outbreak of bird flu in Japan has left officials baffled as to how the outbreak occurred.

Officials from Japan’s agriculture ministry said the strain of the virus that had been found in Japan is the same as that found in South Korea and Vietnam, but they have been unable to discover how an outbreak occurred in Yamaguchi, western Japan.

The Japanese outbreak is the country’s first in almost 80 years.

Agriculture Minister Yoshiyuki Kamei sought to alleviate consumer fears over the outbreak, saying there have been no reports of the virus being transmitted to humans through the consumption of chicken or eggs, reported Reuters.