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FACTCHECK

Debunked: Incompatible athlete death stats continue to be used to mislead about vaccines

Heart problems in athletes have been deceptively blamed on COVID-19 vaccines

MISLEADING STATISTICS ABOUT fatal “cardiac events” and their connection with vaccines continue to be spread online, including by Irish social media users.

The stats are being pulled from incompatible data sets and do not show what the posters claim they do. 

The statistics, which claim that as many athletes have died from heart problems in the years 2021-2022 as had died between 1966-2004 are usually spread in attempts to imply that the vaccines released to combat Covid-19 are dangerous.

This is not the case. Evidence shows that the rare risks posed by the vaccines are significantly outweighed by their protective effects against Covid-19.

“Fatal Athlete Cardiac Events,” one such post reads.

”1966-2004: 1101

“2021-2022: 1114”

Various other versions of this claim have been spread, though the figure given for 2021-2022 varies, and is usually higher.

Claims that deaths of athletes are evidence that vaccines are dangerous have been spread by, among others, Gemma O’Doherty, who is currently being sued by the mother of a teenager who died by suicide whose image was used in O’Doherty’s paper, The Irish Light.

The mother alleges her son’s death was falsely said to have been caused by a vaccine, and that she had been harassed by O’Doherty and her supporters.

O’Doherty rejects all of the allegations of wrongdoing made against her.

Origins of a falsehood

The use of the figures indicating the number of athletes that had died of “cardiac events” appears to have originated in America and spread rapidly there after the collapse of an American football player during a game last January, AFP reports.

(The collapse was actually caused by a hit to the player’s chest which triggered an abnormal heart rhythm.)

“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,” Simone Gold, founder of America’s Frontline Doctors, a group that regularly promotes Covid-19 misinformation said misleadingly.

Gold, who was convicted for storming government buildings during the 6 January United States Capitol attack, said in a follow-up post “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, including posts by Irish users. 

Peter McCullough, an American cardiologist who has previously made false claims about vaccination, also tweeted similar figures, citing a letter to the editor he co-authored in the Scandinavian Journal of Immunology.

However, McCullough’s claim was more specific, saying that “1598 athletes suffered cardiac arrest, 1101 of which with deadly outcome. Over a prior 38-years (1966-2004), 1101 athletes < age of 35 died (~29/yr)”.

McCullough told Fox News host Tucker Carlson the same day that heart conditions affecting athletes such as Hamlin may be linked to the Covid-19 vaccines, which he said can be “fatal”.

“It is complete and utter nonsense, from a blog posted by a disgraced physician,” Benjamin Levine, director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, told AFP.

(McCullough’s spreading of misinformation has been widely reported on and his former employers have sued McCullough for using his former professional titles in interviews).

 The claims shared online rest on two pieces of evidence: a peer-reviewed study and an ad-hoc collection of news articles from around the world.

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 analysed reports in databases such as Medline and PubMed to discern patterns in the incidence of sudden cardiac death (SDC) among young athletes.

They found 1,101 reported cases involving athletes younger than 35 between 1966 and 2004. Although the study was global in nature, it was only based on English-language reports in a limited number of databases.

“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.

‘Truth seekers’

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, told AFP. “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 at the age of 61 last 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.

AP reported that the list also included instances of people in their 70s and 80s who had died, not just active athletes.

An analysis by FactCheck.org of 19 early US entries on goodsciencing.com showed that 13 were retired, and one had died of a drug overdose following a struggle with addiction.

“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,” Neel Chokshi, medical director at the Penn Medicine Sports Cardiology and Fitness Program told AFP. “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

The peer-reviewed article in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology was looking for a specific condition, sudden cardiac death, among athletes younger than 35.

If they had been looking for all “Fatal Athlete Cardiac Events”, as posts citing the stat imply, they would likely have found far more examples.

“The world’s biggest killer is ischaemic heart disease, responsible for 16% of the world’s total deaths”, the World Health Organisation published in December 2020.

However, even given its significant limitation, the paper mentions another major hurdle: “SCD in young athletes as reported in the published and studied papers is certainly underestimated,” they wrote.

“Most of the events occur in youth potentially involved in sports activities, which are not reported in the literature. SCD is therefore likely to have comprised more than the 1,101 athletes in the 38-year period across the world, which we reported.”

The HSE says that heart conditions, such as myocarditis and pericarditis are very rare side effects of some vaccines, however the protective effects of these vaccines more than outweigh those risks.

“Statements that imply that reports of deaths following vaccination equate to deaths caused by vaccination are scientifically inaccurate, misleading, and irresponsible,” the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told AFP earlier this year. “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 immunisation that would indicate that Covid vaccines are causing or contributing to deaths.”

The Irish Heart Foundation says that the vaccines approved for use in Ireland are “safe and effective” and urges those with heart disease to get vaccinated.

With reporting from AFP

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