Claims linking sudden deaths of athletes to COVID-19 vaccines are not closely scrutinized

Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome, also known as SADS, has been studied for years. The syndrome is caused by an undetected genetic heart disease and often occurs in young adulthood.

But ever since the COVID-19 vaccines were released in late 2020, people have kept implying that the vaccinations are making SADS more common.

Articles and social media posts have highlighted cases of young athletes collapsing during games, with claims the incidence of these occurrences has risen far since the vaccines were launched.

Take this Instagram post: “SADS – According to data from the International Olympic Committee, from 1966 to 2004, an average of 29 athletes under the age of 35 die of sudden death each year. From March 2021 to March 2022, 769 athletes died or suffered cardiac arrest.”

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat hoaxes and misinformation in its news feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

There are a number of issues here. First, the data itself. While the study, which the post dubs “International Olympic Committee data,” only reflects sudden deaths, the 769 figure it is compared to includes non-fatal deaths and episodes of cardiac arrest. PolitiFact’s review of some of the reports counted in this tally also found that the tally included reports of cases that did not involve any medical emergencies at all.

Second, the study, which according to the Instagram post examined sudden cardiac death in athletes from 1966 to 2004, was not conducted by the International Olympic Committee as suspected. Rather, the results were presented at a committee meeting on December 7, 2004 by researchers affiliated with the University Hospital in Lausanne, Switzerland.

We have not been able to contact the researchers involved in this study for more details or updated figures, and the International Olympic Committee has informed us that it does not track this type of data.

The number 769 comes from an April 2022 segment of One America News Network, a conservative cable news service that has shared problematic claims related to COVID-19 in the past.

In the clip, reporter Pearson Sharp spoke about how tennis players Jannik Sinner and Paula Badosa were forced out at the 2021 Miami Open. Sharp then said the women were just two of “more than 769 athletes who collapsed during a game on the field last year from March 2021 through March of this year.” However, Sinner and Badosa did not collapse in any game. Tennis officials confirmed that Sinner was suffering from foot blisters at the time and Badosa was suffering from a viral disease.

We contacted Sharp for the data they used to get the number. He informed us that the deaths and injuries were taken directly from headlines collected around the world over the past year and sent several examples.

But PolitiFact — and others — have repeatedly investigated the incidents cited in these claims. The details of these episodes show that vaccines do not cause athlete collapse, nor are they linked to other sudden deaths.

A review of the articles sent by Sharp also showed that the reports are inconsistent. Some cite medical professionals who have ruled out vaccination as the cause. Others do not contain information on the athlete’s vaccination status. And some were about athletes who neither collapsed nor suffered a cardiac event.

One of the examples is Gilbert Kwemoi, a gold medalist in middle distance running from Kenya, who collapsed at his home and died in August 2021. None of the reports of his death that we have reviewed indicate whether or not his vaccination against COVID-19 was a cardiac event that caused his death. His brother told news outlets that Kwemoi contracted an “illness” at a training camp.

Another is French soccer player Franck Berrier, who died of a heart attack while playing tennis in August 2021. But Berrier had admitted before the vaccines came out that he had a heart condition.

Berrier reportedly said in 2019 that his heart was only “working at 70%”.

“In everyday life there is no danger,” said Berrier, “but if I put too much strain on him, there is a risk that the blood will not be pumped fast enough and I will have a heart attack.”

Sharp cited stories of the deaths of Ahmed Amin, an Egyptian soccer player, and Avi Barot, an Indian cricketer. But they don’t mention whether the men received a vaccine or what their causes of death were.

Sharp also pointed to the case of Dutch speed skater Kjeld Nuis. Nuis briefly developed pericarditis after receiving Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine, but he never collapsed at any sporting event and he did not say whether his vaccination contributed to his heart problem or if it was related to his athletic activity. After experiencing some flu-like symptoms and chest pressure, Nuis said he was examined by his sports doctor and cardiologist.

“Was able to walk immediately the next day and after a heart film, ultrasound and an MRI. Everything seems fine! In training camp now,” the skater said on his Instagram page.

Another popular example of claims like those on Instagram is the collapse of Danish soccer player Christian Eriksen. But Eriksen was not vaccinated against COVID-19 when he suffered cardiac arrest during a game in June 2021, according to his team director.

“To date, I am not aware of a single COVID vaccine-related cardiac complication in professional sports,” Matthew Martinez, an exercise cardiologist who works with the National Football League, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and Major League Soccer, told us director of exercise cardiology at Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey in December. Martinez reinforced this observation when we contacted him again in June.

The same goes for Jonathan Kim, associate professor of medicine and chief of exercise cardiology at Emory University in Atlanta. “I am not aware of any reports of vaccines causing heart problems in athletes,” he said.

Vaccines do not increase deaths

According to a 2015 study, studies and scientific reviews found no link between vaccinations and deaths in anyone — adults or children — except in rare cases. More recently, following the introduction of COVID-19 vaccines, a 2021 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found no increased risk of death among those vaccinated against COVID-19.

According to the Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndromes Foundation, SADS disorders are genetic heart problems that can lead to sudden death in young, apparently healthy people.

Warning signs of SADS include sudden, unexplained death in the family under the age of 40, fainting or seizures during exercise, excitement or terror, and persistent or unusual chest pain and/or shortness of breath during exercise, the SADS Foundation said.

These conditions have been studied for decades, and the foundation told PolitiFact that there is “no evidence” that any of the COVID-19 vaccines cause people to develop SADS or make people’s conditions worse.

dr Michael J. Ackerman, director of the Long QT Syndrome Clinic and professor of medicine, pediatrics and molecular pharmacology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, said there is no “single signal” of increased SAD events in patients diagnosed and treated who were vaccinated.

“More than two years into the pandemic, there has been no evidence of an increase in deaths from these diseases in the world’s largest programs,” Ackerman said.

Our verdict

An Instagram post claims that from 1966 to 2004 an average of 29 young athletes died suddenly each year, while 769 athletes died or suffered cardiac arrest from March 2021 to March 2022, suggesting that the COVID-19 Vaccines have caused an increase in sudden deaths.

A study published in 2006 found that an average of 29 young athletes experienced sudden death over a period of nearly 40 years, but there is no comparable study to weigh this up. The number 769 is based on a collection of articles that included reports of athlete deaths, incidents of cardiac arrest, and various incomplete anecdotes that did not involve medical emergencies or had a confirmed connection to the vaccines.

Studies and scientific research have found no link between vaccinations and sudden death, and SADS Foundation officials and sports cardiologists say there is no evidence that any of the COVID-19 vaccines cause people to die suddenly.

We rate this as False.

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