Experts say while shark sightings may be common, attacks are rare

Shark's bacteria, not teeth, may be biggest problem

MIAMI – Jessica Vaughn is a 22-year-old woman with a harrowing tale to tell and a grisly bite mark to prove it. Her friends said she was tubing in the Intracoastal Waterway Sunday in Fort Lauderdale when she was attached by a shark.

"It came up from behind her and bit her leg and then kind of smacked its tail and most of its body out of the water," witness Peter Hogge said. "(It) hit her in the face and took off."

Dr. Derek Burkholder, a research associate at Nova Southeastern University's Guy Harvey Research Institute, told Local 10 if it was a shark, it probably thought her leg was a fish.

"Humans are not on the menu," Burkholder explained.

In fact, shark attacks are incredibly rare. According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) at the Florida Museum of Natural History, there were 23 unprovoked attacks statewide last year, none of them deadly.

Shark attacks by the numbers, according to ISAF:

  • 72 unprovoked attacks worldwide (lowest since 2009)
  • 34 in North America (47 including Hawaii)
  • 23 in Florida (2003-2012 average of 21/year), 2 in Miami-Dade
  • 10 fatalities worldwide from unprovoked attacks (1 in Hawaii)

Doctors kept Vaughn in the hospital for observation after her attack; that is in part because the biggest concern for a patient, following a shark bite, is the risk of infection. You may think a shark's teeth are scary, but it is the bacteria living on them that pose the biggest risk.

Dr. Nathan Unger, an assistant professor at Nova Southeastern University's College of Pharmacy, is working on research to identify the bacteria found on sharks' teeth to help medical professionals prescribe the appropriate antibiotic.

Unger's research entails dangerous work -- swabbing the inside of a shark's mouth. He is also trying to find out if different shark species carry different bacteria.

Unger said right now, doctors will treat a patient with two to three antibiotics as a catch-all since they don't know what specific bacteria live in a shark's mouth.

His research could help doctors fine-tune their treatment options for shark-bite victims.

Burkholder's team tags sharks in order to better understand where they travel.

Click here to follow tagged sharks in real time.