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UF researchers develop shark bite severity scale to help trauma responders

Surfers and sharks alike drift toward the murky water, steady waves and pods of bait fish off New Smyrna Beach, notoriously known as the shark attack capital of the world.

The sandy strip of Florida shoreline is the most shark-bitten beach in the most shark-bitten state, a fact that entices a media feeding frenzy after every report of an attack.

Tourists from South Africa, where great whites are common, say they fear the Atlantic coast, said Volusia County beach patrol supervisor Scott Petersohn. Journalists from as far as Japan call at the whiff of blood.

But the reality, he said, often differs from the headlines.

"When anyone hears shark bite, they envision Jaws, someone bit in half, the movie stuff," Petersohn said. "But the majority of shark bites are more or less dog bites. With some of the ones in my area, we put on a couple of Band-Aids, and they go back in the water surfing."

Next week, Petersohn will train lifeguards a new lesson: how to rank shark bites.

Designed by University of Florida researchers and published this month, the Shark-Induced Trauma Scale ranks the bites from the shallow, "Level 1" cuts of a shark's hit-and-run to the severe and fatal injuries of a "Level 5" attack.

Using medical records dating to the 1920s, researchers found that the majority of bites produced only minor injuries. Sneak attacks and "bump and bites" that left serious damage were less common. Only about 8 percent led to death.

Yet that hasn't stopped the press and public perception from shifting many of the year's attacks — about 63, on average, across the world — into a cause for panic. Researchers began debating the need for a ranking system after 2001, when the year's below-average rate of bites failed to dampen hysteria over what Time magazine dubbed the "Summer of the Shark."

"It's all about the hype," Petersohn said. "Shark bites are sexy. Everyone has this fear of being eaten alive."

The ranking, researchers said, may make a difference in the operating room. Since bites are so unusual, medical staffers are often unaccustomed with the best care, said Dr. Ashley Lentz, a senior fellow with the UF department of plastic and reconstructive surgery. The scale, like similar systems for burns and wounds, will offer standardized meanings for severity, allowing coastal responders and hospital surgeons to "speak a common language," said UF trauma medical director Lawrence Lottenberg.

Researchers hope the system will catch on quickly, beginning with Florida as the testing grounds and ramping up before the beginning months of "shark bite season" in June.

Tampa Bay's most recent attack came in July, when a 19-year-old woman survived a bite from an 8-foot bull shark in a St. Pete Beach canal.

George Burgess, the curator of the International Shark Attack File at UF, said he hopes the scale will add more perspective to the oft-inflated danger of swimming offshore. Every year, across the world, four people die from shark bites — a drop in the bucket compared with the 80 million sharks killed annually by humans.

"When you have those kinds of odds, it's pretty clear who's the aggressor in the relationship," Burgess said. "Sharks have a lot more to fear from us than we have to from them."

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Shark-Induced Trauma Scale*

Level 1 Level 2 Level 3 Level 4 Level 5
Shark "hit and runs" that leave small skin cuts. Deeper bites, damaging muscles or tendons with slight loss of blood. Large bites down to the bone that require surgery. Aggressive attacks that puncture major blood vessels with deep tissue damage. Often fatal. Extreme bites that involve rapid blood loss, loss of limbs or organs.
42% 17% 19% 14% 8%

(Based on University of Florida research published in the American Surgeon this month)

A hammerhead shark, bottom, hunts in the Gulf of Mexico as a beachgoer, top, walks the Destin shoreline. 

Associated Press (1997)

A hammerhead shark, bottom, hunts in the Gulf of Mexico as a beachgoer, top, walks the Destin shoreline. 

Fast facts

Local shark attacks

Possible rankings based on the reported circumstances:

Level 1: Dana Joseph, 39, received 11 stitches in his foot after a shark bit him off Clearwater Beach's Pier 60. (May 25, 2009)

Level 2: A bull shark shredded flesh below the right knee of Jenna James, 19, as she swam in a backyard canal. Injuries were serious but not life-threatening. (July 22, 2009)

Level 3: James Tiffee, 47, was bitten on his backside, hand and face while swimming in Big Bayou at dusk. He required four hours of surgery and skin grafts to replace a square-foot wound on his back. (Aug. 6, 2004)

Level 5: Thadeus Kubinski, 69, had his rib cage crushed and his liver torn by a 9-foot bull shark in the Boca Ciega Bay canal. He bled to death. (Aug. 30, 2000)

UF researchers develop shark bite severity scale to help trauma responders 01/29/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 2, 2010 11:32am]
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