There have been recent reports of the Avian Influenza among birds in China, termed the H7N9 strain. Such outbreaks are common, and they are monitored closely by public health officials due to the potential for an epidemic starting from such outbreaks. Current human strains are much different: H1N1 and H3N2. A change to H7 would have profound consequences.
Influenza is a specific seasonal virus that has a worldwide distribution and it has been the source of deadly epidemics in the past. The last major worldwide epidemic was in 1918, 100 year ago when the population was less then 2 billion people. Now, with the population of 7 billion and billions of people living in cities with exposure to animals and birds in close quarters (particularly in the developing megacities of China, Africa, and South America, the potential for an explosive epidemic is much greater. The canary in the coal mine will be these initial avian (bird flu epidemics). If they spread widely among chickens, then if they can infection humans and transmit easily from human-to-human, we have the makings of a worldwide pandemic.
Monitoring is key to prevention, and rapid development of specific flu vaccine with stockpiling, also is critical to avoid such an outcome. So…when you hear about the initial spread of such outbreaks, it’s worthwhile keeping an eye out for such information. It will often be a false alarm, but we need to be prepared if it is more than that.