After the collapse of American football player Damar Hamlin during a Buffalo Bills game, anti-vaccine advocates claimed on social media that the number of athletes who died due to heart conditions between 2021 and 2023 was the same as the period 1966-2004. This is unproven; the sources cited in the posts do not support the allegation, for which multiple sports cardiology experts told AFP there is no evidence.
"As an experienced emergency physician, I want to remind the public that athletes being incapacitated or dropping dead was not a 'thing' prior to 2020," said Simone Gold, founder of America's Frontline Doctors, a group that has previously promoted Covid-19 misinformation, in a January 3, 2023 tweet.
Gold, who was also arrested and sentenced for her involvement in the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol, said in a follow-up post that "the same number of athletes died in the last TWO years as compared to a prior 38 years."
"From January 2021 to present, 1101 athletes died from cardiac arrest," she said. "Over a prior 38 years (1966-2004), 1101 athletes under the age of 35 died due to various heart conditions."
Other posts echoing Gold's claims or other statistics about athlete collapses have been shared tens of thousands of times on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram by conservative figures such as Liz Wheeler, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool. Similar allegations have also circulated in French.
Screenshot from Twitter taken January 4, 2023
Screenshot from Instagram taken January 4, 2023
The posts come after Hamlin, a safety for the Buffalo Bills, suffered a cardiac arrest during an NFL game against the Cincinnati Bengals on January 2, 2023. He was hospitalized in critical condition, leading some to speculate online that the Covid-19 vaccine was to blame.
Gold's tweet tags Peter McCullough, an American cardiologist who has previously made false claims about vaccination. He provided similar data in a January 3 tweet, citing a letter to the editor he co-authored in the Scandinavian Journal of Immunology.
McCullough told Fox News host Tucker Carlson the same day that heart conditions afflicting athletes such as Hamlin may be linked to the Covid-19 vaccines, which he said can be "fatal." But public health authorities say such side effects are rare -- and claims of a recent spike in sudden cardiac deaths are unfounded.
"It is complete and utter nonsense, from a blog posted by a disgraced physician," said Benjamin Levine, director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, in a January 5 email.
'Not serious science'
The claims shared online rest on two pieces of evidence: a peer-reviewed study and a collection of news articles.
The former, titled "Sudden cardiac death in athletes: the Lausanne Recommendations," was published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology in December 2006. Researchers affiliated with the International Olympic Committee analyzed reports in databases such as Medline and PubMed to study the incidence of sudden cardiac death (SCD), a loss of heart function, among young athletes.
They found that, between 1966 and 2004, the condition occurred in 1,101 reported cases involving athletes younger than 35.
"SCD occurs more frequently in young athletes, even those under the age of 18 years, than expected and is predominantly caused by pre-existing congenital cardiac abnormalities," the study says, noting that the condition is more common among athletes than non-athletes.
In his December 2022 letter to the editor, McCullough juxtaposed those findings with more recent reports of "athlete collapses and deaths" compiled on GoodSciencing.com.
The website, maintained by an anonymous group of "investigators, news editors, journalists, and truth seekers," said in an article updated in late December that there had been 1,598 "athlete cardiac arrests" and "serious issues" since the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccines. Of those, 1,101 died, according to GoodSciencing.com.
"It is definitely not normal for so many mainly young athletes to suffer from cardiac arrests or to die while playing their sport, but this year it is happening," the article says. "Many of these heart issues and deaths come shortly after they got a Covid vaccine."
As evidence, the website cites a lengthy list of news articles about people who have reportedly collapsed or died due to a variety of medical conditions. But it does not prove more than 1,000 athletes have suffered sudden cardiac deaths since Covid-19 vaccination.
"This is garbage. This is not serious science," said Jonathan Kim, chief sports cardiologist at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, in a January 5 email. "These 'reports' in that blog, if you can (call) them that, come from across the world and across all ages. This is not a serious registry of competitive athletes with all cases appropriately vetted."
For example, GoodSciencing.com links to news stories about Mike Leach, the head coach of Mississippi State University's American football team who died in mid-December after suffering a massive heart attack. The website also points to reports on the cancer deaths of a 62-year-old Canadian curling player and a 25-year-old Norwegian orienteer.
None of them draw a link to Covid-19 vaccines.
"It is difficult to directly compare a blog post that lists events to a peer-reviewed research study, as the exact strategy for identifying patients in the blog is not outlined," said Neel Chokshi, medical director at the Penn Medicine Sports Cardiology and Fitness Program, in a January 5 email. "Therefore, it would be inaccurate to compare the two sets of information for the question posed."
He added: "The data presented here does not support the notion that vaccines have caused an increase in sudden death."
No evidence of mass deaths
With about 325,000 adult cases annually, sudden cardiac death is "the largest cause of natural death in the United States," according to the Cleveland Clinic. The condition is responsible for half of all heart disease deaths, the academic medical center says, and most frequently affects adult men in their mid-30s and 40s.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is monitoring some rare "adverse events of interest" reported after Covid-19 vaccination -- including heart conditions that can lead to sudden cardiac death, such as myocarditis. But such ailments are far more common following Covid-19 infection, and the CDC says there is no evidence the shots are killing people en masse.
"Statements that imply that reports of deaths following vaccination equate to deaths caused by vaccination are scientifically inaccurate, misleading, and irresponsible," the agency said in a statement emailed to AFP on January 4. "Covid-19 vaccines are undergoing the most intense safety monitoring in US history. To date, CDC has not detected any unusual or unexpected patterns for deaths following immunization that would indicate that Covid vaccines are causing or contributing to deaths."
The CDC and the US Food and Drug Administration have identified nine deaths as "causally associated" with Johnson & Johnson's Covid-19 vaccine, which has been linked to a rare blood clotting condition. The CDC recommends Pfizer or Moderna's shots over Johnson & Johnson's.
The agency told AFP it "recommends that everyone who is eligible should get vaccinated."
More of AFP's reporting on vaccine misinformation is available here.