Angelo Fichera and Sofia Tulp | Associated Press
Jake West was a seemingly healthy 17-year-old when he passed out while training football at a high school in Indiana and died of sudden cardiac arrest. A video widely circulated on the Internet falsely suggests that the COVID-19 vaccination is to blame and turns headlines about it into high-speed news coverage of the deaths of athletes.
The vaccine did not play a role in West’s death – he died of an undiagnosed heart attack in 2013, seven years before the pandemic began.
The video is just one example of many similar compilations circulating on the Internet that use deceptive tactics to link vaccines to an alleged 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 stream of stories and headlines delivered without context, some of which have been translated from other languages and contain few details that people can check on their own.
According to Norbert Schwartz, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Southern California, they are very effective in spreading misinformation using a strategy that sows doubt and bypasses critical analysis using emotion.
“This is to give us the feeling that vaccines can be dangerous,” Schwartz said. “You do it with material that feels real because it’s real. All these events really happened, they just have nothing to do with vaccines. ”
The nearly four-minute cut, which featured West’s story, kicked off on HighWire, an online talk show hosted by Del Bigtri, popular with the anti-vaccine community, and gradually spread to social media.
It shows the viewer more than 50 medical emergencies in quick succession, while eerie music and a beating heart play in the background, ending with grim images of medics and teammates rushing towards the fallen athletes.
After the video aired, Bigtree noted on his show that there was “no evidence” that vaccines were responsible for these cases, even suggesting they might be.
“All of these sports require a vaccine for everyone to play, and I can only ask a very simple question: have you ever heard the story of an athlete who has a heart attack on the pitch?” Bigtree said.
However, cases of sudden cardiac arrest – an abrupt disruption of the heart, other than a heart attack – have long been documented among young athletes.
According to one analysis based on 2016 emergency services data, there are more than 23,000 cases of non-hospital cardiac arrest in children in the United States each year, 4,000 of which were mainly due to heart disease.
Dr. Jonathan Dresner, director of the Center for Sports Cardiology at the University of Washington, said there is no “scientific evidence” that COVID-19 or mRNA vaccines increase sudden cardiac arrest, often called SCA, in athletes.
“SCA was the leading cause of sudden death in athletes during sports and training long before the outbreak of the pandemic,” Dresner said. “There is no evidence that the cases shown in this video were caused by the vaccine.”
A rare risk of myocarditis, a condition that causes inflammation of the heart and is most common in young men and teenage boys, has been linked to mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. However, those affected usually recover quickly, and health officials concluded that the benefits of vaccination outweighed the risks.
Experts note that COVID-19 also carries the risk of myocarditis.
Dr. Jonathan Kim, head of sports cardiology at Emory University School of Medicine and team cardiologist for the Atlanta NFL, NBA and MLB teams, also challenged the claim that such heart problems are on the rise among athletes.
“One of the key points that all of us in the sports cardiology community are really trying to highlight is the tragic deaths of athletes before COVID, and there will be tragic sudden cardiac deaths after the end of COVID,” Kim said.
However, these claims are circulating widely on the Internet and are gaining traction in anti-vaccination circles.
Dr. Robert Malone, inventor and now skeptic of the technology used in some COVID-19 vaccines, shared the HighWire video with his over 440,000 Twitter followers, saying, “Safe and effective?”
Malone removed it in late November, around the same time the lawyer sent the termination order on behalf of the West family. He did not respond to AP’s request for comment, but tweeted that he deleted the video after learning it was “faked.”
While it is impossible to verify every case mentioned in the HighWire video due to a lack of details, many APs that were studied had nothing to do with COVID-19 vaccines. Several local reports have shown that environmental factors such as heat exhaustion or other underlying conditions may have played a role.
An early version of the video featured clips of University of Florida’s Keyonta Johnson fainting during a basketball game, along with other compilations. But Johnson’s crash came in December 2020, before vaccines were widely available. University officials confirmed to the AP that he was not vaccinated at the time.
The video also featured Florida teenager Ryan Jacobs, who passed out during tennis training in January 2021, and Danish footballer Christian Eriksen, who had a heart failure on the field in June this year during a match against Finland. According to the Jacobs family and the Eriksen club, none of them were vaccinated.
The video was updated a few weeks after issues were raised related to some of the stories included. The Johnson and Jacobs files were deleted after they were deemed to be “out of date due to time or recently disclosed medical records or statements,” Bigtree said in an email.
West’s story remains the latest, as do other controversial cases such as Jack Alhatib, a 17-year-old South Carolina student who died during football practice in August. His mother, Kelly Hewins Alhatib, said an autopsy revealed he had a rare heart condition unrelated to vaccines.
Several of the other athletes are reported to have received the vaccine, although the status of many others is unclear. At least one Dutch skater, Kjeld Nuis, reportedly developed pericarditis after being vaccinated, but posted on Instagram shortly thereafter that he had recovered.
For West’s family members who have worked to raise awareness of sudden cardiac arrest through their Play for Jake Foundation, it was frustrating that his story was being used to spread misinformation about vaccines. His mother, Julie West, wondered if the filmmakers thought about their parents’ feelings.
“My tragedy of losing my son always upsets me, and it really upsets me to think that someone will take advantage of this,” she said. “It’s overwhelming to me that there are people out there who want to spread or have their own plans.”
Associated Press author Mark Long of Gainesville, Florida contributed to this report.