WebMD Medical News
Louise Chang, MD
Feb. 15, 2008 -- Unprovoked shark attacks killed one person worldwide in 2007, a 20-year low.
That's according to the International Shark Attack File, a project of the Florida Museum of National History at the University of Florida.
"Fatalities are a rarity as a result of shark attacks," says George Burgess, MS, curator of the International Shark Attack File.
"Each decade in the 20th century had a lower fatality rate than the prior one," Burgess tells WebMD. "This decade promises to be lower than the 1990s, as well."
He credits better emergency medical care, beach safety, and public awareness for that trend, which counters a rise in the number of shark attacks.
There were 71 unprovoked shark attacks in 2007, up from 63 in 2006.
"This decade, we're going to have more attacks than the previous one, which is a no-brainer considering the pattern of population growth, which has not slowed down," Burgess says.
In other words, more people living near an ocean means more chances for shark attacks.
"But you can't predict environmental and meteorological and oceanic conditions, and you can't predict the economy on a world basis," Burgess says. "And all of those influence whether sharks and humans get together."
Last year's lone fatality occurred in New Caledonia in the South Pacific. The victim was a nurse who had been working as a contractor in New Caledonia.
On vacation, the nurse and a friend were skin diving in "fairly shallow water" and were apart but in sight of each other when the shark attacked, Burgess says.
The nurse's companion "saw her suddenly struggling with the shark attacking her and she succumbed to her injuries," Burgess says. "We're still investigating the species of shark involved, but there's some conjecture at this point that it might be a white shark."
On the Florida Museum of Natural History's web site, Burgess provides the following tips to help prevent shark attacks:
If you come face to face with a shark, Burgess advises hitting the tip of its nose, using an inanimate object such as a camera if you happen to have one with you. The shark should retreat, which is your chance to get out of the water as quickly and as smoothly as possible, keeping an eye on the shark the whole time.
"If a shark actually gets you in its mouth, I advise [you] to be as aggressively defensive as you are able. 'Playing dead' does not work," Burgess says on the museum's web site. He recommends clawing at the shark's eyes and gill openings, which are sensitive areas.
"Once released, do all you can to exit the water as quickly as possible, because with your blood in the water, the shark could very well return for a repeat attack," Burgess says.
SOURCES:International Shark Attack File: "2007 Worldwide Shark Attack
Summary."George Burgess, MS, curator, International Shark Attack File, Florida
Program for Shark Research, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of
Florida, Gainesville.Florida Museum of Natural History: "Reducing the Risk of a Shark
Encounter: Advice to Aquatic Recreationalists."Florida Museum of Natural History: "Advice to Divers Encountering a
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