Dear World Health Organization
It was with dismay that we watched your latest Public Service Announcement on the Covid-19 vaccine. Conflating a serious and valid global health message with an equally serious and valid conservation challenge, using antiquated stereotypes to perpetuate a negative perception of sharks, is counterproductive to both messages.
The WHO espouses evidence-based decision-making and reporting. We therefore believe that you know the consequences of inaccurate messaging. We also believe that the WHO will know from experience that the few minutes in which an inaccurate message can be peddled takes decades of work and funding to remediate. This is no different in the conservation sector. It is therefore disheartening to see the WHO undermine credible marine science to achieve its message.
The stereotypes your PSA plays on are irresponsible and damaging. Here is why:
- The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report shows that species extinction is accelerating globally, undermining the foundations of our economies, livelihoods and health.
- 35% of all shark species are threatened with extinction. In the latest IUCN Red List assessments, the number of Critically Endangered and Endangered sharks has tripled since the last assessment in 2014.
- The International Shark Attack Files, the world’s only scientific repository for evidence-based reporting on shark encounters, shows that the likelihood of a fatal shark encounter is 1 in 3,748,067 in an average lifetime. This is contrasted with 1 in 5 for heart disease, 1 in 7 for cancer and 1 in 63 for flu, statistics that actually fall within the gambit of the WHO’s reporting.
Shark encounters do not constitute a global public health issue, which is ostensibly the domain of the WHO. Public attitudes towards sharks, however, shape policy responses. Our concern lies with having conflated the two, to the detriment of conservation policy and perception. Dr Christopher Neff (University of Sydney) writes: “Perceptions about local shark populations can impact broader conversations about national and international shark conservation”.
Media and messaging play a role in determining public attitudes towards sharks. We refer you to a scientific paper published last year: “Inaccurate and Biased Global Media Coverage Underlies Public Misunderstanding of Shark Conservation Threats and Solutions”. Lead author Dr David Shiffman says that media coverage of sharks is: “Frequently presented in an oversimplified, biased, or factually inaccurate manner that would likely contribute to a widespread public misunderstanding about these topics”.
We believe that the WHO understands the gravity of perpetuating misinformation. It is important that the WHO recognise that just as the conservation community cannot disseminate poorly researched messaging about public health issues, the WHO have not done due diligence in conceptualising this PSA, and do not bear the direct costs of its dissemination.
It is unfortunate that the WHO has helped perpetuate damaging and false information. We hope that the points above, which are easily-accessed, not only correct your misinformation, but impress on you the magnitude of work that your message has undermined.
More than this, we hope that you can recognise that your PSA undermines your own messaging and long-term goals. Achieving equitable, good human health globally relies on everyone’s access to a healthy living environment and functioning planet. Public health and the conservation sector are not at odds with one another: they are interdependent. The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp relief just how broken our relationship is with Nature. It is inconceivable that the WHO does not recognise that repeated, future pandemics will be the consequence of our continued disfunction as custodians of this planet.
The Shark Attack Campaign Team
@sharkattackcampaign (Facebook & Instagram); @SharkAttackSA (Twitter); www.sharkattackcampaign.co.za
(Underwritten by the WILDOCEANS programme of the WILDTRUST – www.wildtrust.co.za)