Social media outlets are once again bubbling with misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines and cardiovascular disease. The latest uproar is over claims of a link between vaccines and increased rates of sudden cardiac arrest in athletes.
Despite the outcries of vaccination opponents, there is no connection between COVID-19 vaccines and sudden cardiac arrest in athletes. In fact, there is no increase in sudden cardiac arrests among athletes.
What is the Claim?
Numerous social media posts have emerged recently, claiming to show connections between dramatic increases in the number of athletes collapsing in competition and COVID-19 vaccinations. One article by Free West Media that has been re-posted by several well known COVID-19 vaccine skeptics, claims 69 athletes collapsed in October alone. The article alleges that these incidents “are often” caused by cardiovascular problems including myocarditis and stroke, and suggests that they are due to “the ongoing carnage that the [COVID-19] jabs have unleashed”.
The Free West Media piece is a clear example of vaccine misinformation, with several key claims questionable at best, and others simply wrong.
The definition of ‘athlete’ used by the article is very broad, and in many cases not accurate. In one incident a golf caddy who collapsed is included, despite that fact that they were not a competitor in the event. Joe Plant, a British man who suffered cardiac arrest while walking as part of a fundraiser for the British Heart Foundation in September is included on the list. What isn’t included is the fact that Mr. Plant had a pre-existing cardiac condition, which is why he was walking to raise money for heart research. Moreover, the classification of a person walking to raise money as an ‘athlete’ is disingenuous. Overall, a review of the list finds that among those classified as ‘athletes’ are 8 spectators; 4 coaches or members of the team staff; 6 people not competing in a sporting event; and a referee who died in his sleep, with no mention of any recent involvement in sports.
Only two of the cases include any mention of COVID-19 vaccines. It isn’t known if any of the people who collapsed were vaccinated, or if they had experienced COVID-19. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has a lasting impact on a number of people referred to as ‘long-haulers’. A leading area of concern amongst people with long COVID-19 are cardiovascular complications that persist after infection.
Several of the cases provide no evidence of cardiac involvement at all. For example, a case from Arcisate, Italy describes a referee who suffered a “medical emergency” which ended the match. This generic description could be anything from sudden death, to a soft tissue injury that limited mobility and prevented completion of the match. While anyone who collapses should be cause for concern, the reasons for these incidents could be as simple as dehydration – a common and often readily treatable condition.
The Heart of the Problem
The list claiming 69 events of collapse or death has caused many people on social media to express concern that these events could happen in athletes. The list of commentators includes healthcare providers who claim that cardiac events like ‘sudden cardiac arrest’ should not occur in athletes, and that the most obvious culprit is a COVID-19 vaccine. These posts demonstrate a lack of understanding of cardiovascular conditions in athletes.
What is Sudden Cardiac Arrest?
Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when a person’s heart suddenly stops beating. Many people mistakenly describe this as a ‘heart attack’. A heart attack is when the heart receives insufficient oxygen because of a reduction in blood flow. Heart attacks often develop over time when the blood vessels that feed the heart – called coronary arteries – are gradually blocked. Heart attacks can occur suddenly if a clot breaks off to stop blood flow, or a blood vessel goes into spasm and closes. In many cases, the heart does not stop beating when a person has a heart attack.
In some cases, a heart attack may be severe enough to cause the heart to stop, but a heart attack is not required to cause sudden cardiac arrest. Sudden cardiac arrest often occurs because of problems in the heart’s electrical system that stimulates beating. Sudden cardiac arrest is commonly associated with genes that contain mistakes or ‘mutations’ that cause the electrical system of the heart to malfunction. People at risk for sudden cardiac death can have apparently normal health function, and sudden cardiac arrest is triggered by stressful conditions like exercise.
By the Numbers
Sudden cardiac arrest is a cardiovascular condition found throughout the world. In Canada alone, almost 100 people experience sudden cardiac arrest every day.
Sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in competitive athletes, with rates up to 1 in 20,000. Based on pre-COVID-19 studies, a young, competitive athlete dies from sudden cardiac arrest every 2-3 days in the United States. Unfortunately, these disturbingly high rates may be an underestimation as studies suggest that a large number of unexplained deaths among athletes are actually undiagnosed cases of sudden cardiac arrest.
Not Adding Up
The claim by COVID-19 vaccine opponents that sudden cardiac arrest does not occur in healthy young people is inaccurate. A UK organization called “Cardiac Risk in the Young” (CRY) has conducted research showing that over 80% of young people who are at risk of dying from sudden cardiac arrest have no prior symptoms or family history of cardiovascular disease. In another study, they found that enhanced medical screening of over 11,000 English football players (16-17 years old) revealed that 1 in 50 had heart abnormalities. The study also found that despite enhanced cardiac screening processes, the incidence of sudden cardiac death in this apparently healthy and active population was 1 in 14,794 person-years. The fact is: the vast majority of young people who experience sudden cardiac arrest are considered to be healthy prior to any cardiac incident and there are few or no signs before cardiac arrest. For many the first sign of a problem is sudden cardiac arrest.
A Trending Myth
If COVID-19 vaccines are not to blame, then what it causing increased rates of sudden cardiac deaths in athletes? The answer to that question is ‘nothing’, because there is no increase.
A Real Time News article collected information on sudden cardiac deaths among FIFA players and claimed that since the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines, sudden deaths among football players has increased 500%. The article drew its data from media reports of deaths and compared these numbers to a historical record of deaths posted on Wikipedia. Based on this highly questionable analysis, the 500% increase in deaths was reached.
Agence France-Presse asked Drs. Florian Egger and Tim Meyer to review the information collected as part of the Real Time News article. Dr. Egger leads the "FIFA Register for Sudden Deaths and Cardiac Arrests", while Dr. Meyer is chairman of the medical commission of the German Football Association and team doctor for the German national football team. Both concluded that the evidence put forth by Real Time News did not support the claim of increased sudden cardiac deaths among FIFA players. In fact. Dr. Egger found that based on data collected by the FIFA registry over the first 10 months of 2021, rates are actually lower than pre-COVID-19 levels.
At the Finish Line
Despite the claims of multiple news organizations and social media commentators, there is no evidence that COVID-19 vaccines are associated with increased rates of sudden cardiac arrest in athletes. The basis for these claims comes from the selective use of information from online resources and media reports. Data from clinical trials and international sporting agencies have revealed no connection between sudden cardiac arrest in athletes and COVID-19 vaccines. In fact, peer-reviewed studies of COVID-19 trials report no connections between the vaccines and sudden cardiac arrest in any population.Incidents of sudden cardiac arrest involving high profile athletes have always drawn significant public attention. These events are relatively rare, but widespread media coverage gives the impression that they are more common than they really are. The mismatch between public perception and epidemiological data on sudden cardiac arrest in athletes was well established before the development of COVID-19 vaccines. What is new is the irresponsible and dangerous dissemination of misinformation that incorrectly makes a connection between COVID-19 vaccines and sudden cardiac arrest.