By ANGELO FICHERA and SOPHIA TULP, Associated Press
Jake West was a seemingly healthy 17-year-old when he collapsed during high school football practice in Indiana and died of sudden cardiac arrest. A video widely shared online mistakenly suggests the COVID-19 vaccination is to blame, spinning headlines about it into a swift compilation of reports about collapsing athletes.
The vaccine played no role in West’s death – he died of undiagnosed heart disease in 2013, seven years before the pandemic began.
The video is just one example of many similar compilations circulating the internet that use deceptive tactics to link vaccines to a supposed wave of death and disease among the healthiest people, often athletes, a claim for which medical experts say there is no supporting evidence.
The clips flood viewers with a barrage of stories and titles delivered without context, some translated from other languages and offering little detail that people can verify for themselves.
They are very effective at spreading misinformation using a strategy that sows doubt and circumvents critical analysis, capitalizing on emotion, according to Norbert Schwarz, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Southern California.
“It’s designed to foster this feeling that vaccines can be risky,” Schwarz said. “You do this with material that feels real, because it’s real. All of these things have actually happened, they just have nothing to do with vaccines. “
The nearly four-minute montage that included West’s story comes from “The HighWire,” an online talk show hosted by Del Bigtree that is popular among the anti-vaccine community, and has gradually been amplified via social media. .
It takes the viewer through more than 50 medical emergencies in quick succession as eerie music plays and a heart pounding in the background, ending with grim images of medics and teammates rushing towards fallen athletes. in combat.
After showing the video, Bigtree noted on his show that there was “no evidence” that vaccines were responsible for the cases – even suggesting they could be.
“All of these sports force everyone to have this vaccine to play, and I can only ask the very simple question, do you remember hearing the story of an athlete having a heart attack on the court?” Bigtree said.
Yet cases of sudden cardiac arrest – a sudden dysfunction of the heart, different from a heart attack – have long been documented in young athletes.
An analysis based on emergency medical services data from 2016 estimated that there were more than 23,000 out-of-hospital pediatric cardiac arrest cases in the United States each year, of which 4,000 were primarily due to heart problems. .
Dr Jonathan Drezner, director of the Center for Sports Cardiology at the University of Washington, said there was “no scientific evidence” that neither COVID-19 nor mRNA vaccines increased sudden cardiac arrests, often called SCA, in athletes.
“SCA was the leading cause of sudden death in athletes during sports and exercise long before the onset of the pandemic,” Drezner said. “There is no evidence that the cases shown in this video were caused by a vaccine. “
A rare risk of myocarditis, a disease that causes inflammation of the heart and tends to occur mainly in young men and adolescents, has been associated with mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. However, those affected usually recover quickly, and health officials have concluded that the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks.
Experts point out that COVID-19 itself also carries a risk of myocarditis.
Dr. Jonathan Kim, head of sports cardiology at Emory University School of Medicine and a cardiologist for the Atlanta NFL, NBA and MLB team, also took issue with the claim that these heart problems in athletes are increasing.
“One of the key points that all of us in the sports cardiology community really try to stress is that there have been tragic cases of athletes who died before COVID, and after COVID ends there will be tragic cases. of sudden cardiac death, ”Kim mentioned.
Yet the claims are circulating widely online and gaining traction in anti-vaccine circles.
Dr Robert Malone, a self-identified inventor and now skeptical of the technology used in some COVID-19 vaccines, shared the “HighWire” video with his more than 440,000 followers on Twitter, saying, “Safe and effective?
Malone deleted it in late November, around the same time a lawyer sent a cease and desist order on behalf of the West family. He did not respond to a request for comment from AP, but tweeted that he removed the video after learning it had been “tampered with.”
While a lack of detail makes it impossible to verify all of the cases mentioned in the “HighWire” video, many the PA was able to examine were unrelated to COVID-19 vaccines. Some local reports have shown that environmental factors such as heat exhaustion or different underlying conditions may have played a role.
An early version of the video showed clips of University of Florida’s Keyontae Johnson collapsing during a basketball game, as did other compilations. But Johnson’s collapse took place in December 2020, before vaccines became widely available. University officials confirmed to AP he was not vaccinated at the time.
Others featured in the video were Florida teenager Ryne Jacobs, who collapsed during tennis practice in January 2021, and Danish footballer Christian Eriksen, who suffered cardiac arrest on the pitch in June. in a game against Finland. Neither has been vaccinated, according to Jacobs’ family and Eriksen’s club.
The video was updated weeks later after issues were raised with some of the stories it included. Johnson and Jacobs’ cases were withdrawn after being deemed “more relevant due to the timing or newly disclosed medical records or statements,” Bigtree said in an emailed statement.
West’s story remains in the final iteration, as do other contentious cases like that of Jack Alkhatib, a 17-year-old student from South Carolina who died during football practice in August. His mother, Kelly Hewins Alkhatib, said an autopsy revealed he had a rare heart disease unrelated to the vaccines.
Some of the other athletes are said to have received the vaccine, although the status of many others is unclear. At least one, Dutch speed skater Kjeld Nuis, reportedly suffered from pericarditis after being vaccinated, but he posted on Instagram shortly after his recovery.
For those of West’s family, who have worked to raise awareness about sudden cardiac arrests through their Play for Jake foundation, seeing his story co-opted in the service of spreading anti-vaccine misinformation has been distressing. Her mother, Julie West, wondered if the writers of the videos had ever taken the parents’ feelings into account.
“My tragedy of losing my son is always heartbreaking, and to think that someone would use it for their benefit is very upsetting,” she said. “It’s mind-boggling to me that there are people like this who want to spread or have their own agenda.”
Associated Press writer Mark Long in Gainesville, Florida contributed to this report.
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