By Anya van Wagtendonk, Misinformation Reporter, and Jon Lambert, Public Health Reporter.
An upsetting scene unfolded during the Euro Cup last summer: A young player on Denmark’s soccer team fell writhing to the ground, suffering from a sudden cardiac arrest. Christian Eriksen, then 29, was rushed off the field and recovered in the hospital.
But dramatic video of the moment spread quickly on the internet, fueled by rumors that Eriksen was experiencing an adverse reaction to a covid vaccine. In fact, he was not vaccinated at the time. But the incident was one of several in 2021 where a young athlete suffered a health condition on the field of play and later became linked to unfounded fears about the vaccine.
Soon, videos on social media attached these unrelated medical events to an anti-vaccination narrative that covid vaccines cause the heart to inflame. Some of the events in question occurred before covid had begun its spread. The truth is that it’s not unusual for young athletes to carry undiagnosed heart conditions onto the field.
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But that has not slowed the claim or fears about covid vaccines. The rumor about athletes has gained sufficient traction that at least one sitting U.S. senator recently shared it.
This particular myth demonstrates the global nature of covid misinformation. It is a rumor that, much like the virus itself, winged around the globe, mutating as it did. Its power is derived, in part, from taking a real phenomenon — young sports stars discovering congenital heart problems — and distorting it to discourage vaccination.
“The most compelling misinformation and disinformation has a small kernel of truth that is twisted and twisted and twisted in a way that then makes it misleading, and makes it support some alternative narrative,” said Tara Kirk Sell, a scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security who studies large-scale health events.
The misinformation spread much like the virus
Almost as soon as the covid vaccine became available, rumors linking a wide variety of high-profile medical events, such as celebrity deaths, began spreading on social media. The purported link between athletes and heart attacks followed a similar pattern.
Eriksen’s heart attack was among the first events to trigger such speculation. A tweet saying that the Danish football player had received the Pfizer vaccine days before he collapsed spread quickly, even after the claim was refuted. Anti-vaccine news publications and media personalities across Europe picked up on the idea, many citing an unquantified “increase” in deaths.
According to the Washington Post, one such article on an Austrian website made its way to the U.S. when an anti-vaccination website, the HighWire, tweeted a translation. That story was picked up by right-wing news sites and spread across social media.
At the same time, compilation videos spread on social media showed young, fit athletes, mainly elite soccer players from around the world, suffering from heart attacks and seizures. They were joined by longer videos sharing stories of middle- and high school players experiencing medical conditions or dying while playing basketball, hockey, rugby, cricket and American football. Some also include examples of medical emergencies among officials or fans in the stands.
Articles, including one from the prominent conservative outlet Gateway Pundit, cited differing statistics — sometimes dozens, sometimes hundreds of deaths — to connect these disparate events. These pieces argued that covid vaccines cause myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, and pericarditis, an inflammation of the tissue surrounding the heart, two conditions that can lead to heart failure, arrhythmias, cardiac arrest and strokes. Researchers have uncovered a slight risk of myocarditis from the mRNA covid vaccines in male teens and young adults, but risk of developing the condition from an actual coronavirus infection is much higher.
In the last several weeks, the idea was picked up by American public figures, notably Republican Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson.
“We’ve heard story after story. All these athletes dropping dead on the field,” he said during an appearance on conservative radio on Jan. 26. “But we’re supposed to ignore that. Nothing happening here, nothing to see. This is a travesty. This is a scandal.”
According to a Reuters investigation, the viral videos show people experiencing a wide range of medical conditions, not only cardiac events. Some of the players cited had not been vaccinated against covid. Some of the videos occurred before vaccines were available — or entirely before the covid outbreak.
And professional sports leagues have reported no increased incidents in adverse medical events in the last year. Most professional athletes in the U.S. have been vaccinated against covid, including nearly 95 percent of players in the NFL, at least 97 percent in the NBA, and nearly 100 percent of the NHL, according to league statistics.
Likewise, FIFA, which governs world soccer, told Reuters that the organization “is not aware of a rise in episodes of cardiac arrests … and no cases have been flagged in relation to individuals receiving a COVID vaccine.”
Nevertheless, the rumors have been so pervasive that they held up vaccination efforts among European soccer players, according to the New York Times.
Where does this misinformation come from?
In the United States, misinformation surrounding vaccine side effects often stems from a seemingly trustworthy source: the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS. Comanaged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, VAERS is national database that helps scientists identify possible safety problems with vaccines of all kinds. Europe also has a similar system, called EudraVigilance.
During the same radio appearance, Johnson also asserted that 22,000 deaths were linked to vaccines, which represents a mischaracterization of EudraVigilance data. Johnson has also repeatedly misconstrued VAERS data to make inaccurate claims about harm from covid vaccines in the United States.
“Any reasonable person who looks at a system with that name would assume these are vaccine adverse events,” said Paul Offit, an infectious-disease physician and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, referring to VAERS. “But they’re not, they’re suspected vaccine adverse events, so they may or may not be causally associated with the vaccine.”
Anyone who receives any type of vaccine in the U.S. can report side effects to VAERS. That openness helps ensure that if there’s a problem with any given shot, government researchers will see it and investigate. But all sorts of things happen to people who’ve happened to be recently vaccinated, against covid or other conditions, that have nothing at all to do with the vaccine.
“When Hank Aaron dies of a stroke two weeks after getting his mRNA-containing vaccine at age 86, that doesn’t mean the vaccine causes strokes,” Offit said. “It’s just that when you’re 86 years of age, you know, you may get a stroke.”
Claims about athletes experiencing side effects during games or practices are particularly compelling because they involve young people, said Kirk Sell, the Johns Hopkins researcher.
“That’s basic risk perception theory, right?” she said. “Things that affect kids and future generations are things that increase people’s perception of risk.”
It’s also alarming to watch people seemingly in the prime of health experience medical problems, she said.
“We hear every year about young, healthy athletes who just had some sort of terrible thing happen to them,” she added. “It’s so gripping because it’s someone who just had so much ahead of them.”
But jarring anecdotes don’t correspond with data comparing rates of such incidents with prior years. CDC researchers have identified just nine deaths linked to a covid vaccine; all were blood clots tied to Johnson & Johnson.
The kernel of truth
On the rare occasions young and seemingly healthy athletes do collapse and die on the field during sporting events, sudden cardiac death, or SCD, is usually the culprit.
The phenomenon is the leading nontraumatic cause of death among athletes under 35, affecting from 1 to 40,000 to 1 in 80,000 per year, according to one estimate. While tragic and unexpected, SCD “usually happens in people who have undiagnosed heart problems,” who routinely participate in strenuous activity, said Jennifer Huang, a pediatric cardiologist at Oregon Health and Science University.
Often, these are congenital problems, like slight malformations of the heart, Huang said. The stress of intense physical activity can magnify these flaws and push the cardiovascular system beyond its limits. As a result, many sports leagues, including the NCAA and FIFA, have developed screening procedures to identify athletes who might be at risk.
Marfan syndrome, a genetic condition that affects the heart’s connective tissues, is also linked to SCD in athletes. In 2014, Baylor University basketball star Isaiah Austin was deemed ineligible from the NBA draft after he was diagnosed with the condition.
Sometimes, SCD is driven by myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscles. The relatively rare condition is usually the result of a viral infection. But it can raise the risk of SCD if the inflammation persists, Huang said. It’s the third leading cause of sudden death in children and infants, but it is usually treatable when identified early.
“Whenever a foreign substance, like a virus, enters the body, it produces an immune reaction,” said Saurabh Rajpal, a cardiologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Sometimes, that reaction runs amok, attacking the body’s own tissues and causing inflammation. When this inflammation strikes the heart, it can cause symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath. In 2017, about 3 million cases of myocarditis were identified worldwide.
That number has ticked up as the coronavirus has ripped round the globe, infecting hundreds of millions of people. For example, U.S. doctors were 42 percent more likely to encounter myocarditis in hospitalized patients in 2020 than 2019, according to the CDC. But it’s the reports of small numbers of myocarditis cases linked to mRNA covid-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna that have given misinformation a foothold.
Out of over 192 million Americans who received the Pfizer or Moderna shots, the CDC found only 1,626 credible cases of myocarditis. Most occurred within a week after a person’s second dose. By comparison, research shows you’re about 17 times more likely to get myocarditis from a coronavirus infection than from an mRNA vaccine. The small increased risk from vaccination pales in comparison to the risk of myocarditis or other serious health problems arising from a covid-19 infection.
“Myocarditis associated with the disease [as opposed to the vaccine] tends to be more serious too, especially in children,” Offit said. “We’ve had about 1,200 children die of this virus; none have died from the mRNA-containing vaccines,” he said.
The increase in myocarditis from coronavirus infections, and the much smaller number of cases from covid vaccines, hasn’t translated to more sudden cardiac deaths on sports fields, said Jonathan Drezner, a cardiologist at the University of Washington. He conducts research with the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, which tracks such events.
“While we may have missed cases, we have identified only two cases since the pandemic began related to covid-19 and sudden cardiac arrest,” he said. “Those lists are total misinformation. Most of the cases are from other established causes of sudden cardiac arrest in athletes, and some cases even occurred before the pandemic began.”
That hasn’t stopped misinformation peddlers. NBA legend John Stockton recently alleged that more than 100 pro athletes had simply dropped dead “right on the pitch, right on the field, right on the court.”
Fact-checkers have found that most of the deaths cited in these articles and videos occurred among older, retired players and officials. But Kirk Sell said that people who benefit from anti-vaccine disinformation traffic in this kind of frightening imagery.
“I think that’s why there’s added attention and sort of this internal horror, that people who are spreading vaccine disinformation and misinformation are trying to leverage,” she said.