Anti-vaccination videos claim a link to athlete deaths
Jake West was a seemingly healthy 17-year-old when he collapsed and died of sudden cardiac arrest while training in football at Indiana high school. A video widespread on the internet falsely suggests the Covid-19 vaccination was to blame and weaves headlines about him into a rapid-fire compilation of coverage of the breakdown of athletes.
The vaccine didn’t play a 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 the many similar compilations floating around the internet using deceitful tactics to link vaccines to an alleged wave of deaths and disease in the healthiest of people, often athletes, a claim for medical experts say there is no evidence.
The clips inundate viewers with a barrage of stories and headlines that are delivered out of context, some translated from other languages, with few details for people to verify for themselves.
According to Norbert Schwarz, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Southern California, they are very effective at spreading misinformation using a strategy that seeds doubt and bypasses critical analysis.
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“It’s supposed to create a feeling that the vaccines could be risky,” said Schwarz. “They do this with material that appears real because it is real. All of these events actually happened, they just have nothing to do with the vaccines.”
The nearly four-minute montage, which included West’s story, was shot on “The HighWire,” an online talk show hosted by Del Bigtree, popular with the anti-vaccine community and gradually expanded through social media.
It leads the viewer through more than 50 medical emergencies in quick succession, while eerie music sounds in the background and a beating heart pulsates, and ends with gloomy images of paramedics and teammates rushing to fallen athletes.
After the video aired, Bigtree noted on his show that there is “no evidence” that vaccines are responsible for the cases – even if they suggest they might be.
“All of these sports mandate this vaccine for everyone to play, and I can only ask the very simple question: do you ever remember hearing a story about an athlete having a heart attack on the field?” said Bigtree.
But cases of sudden cardiac arrest – an abrupt malfunction 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 estimates that there are more than 23,000 pediatric out-of-hospital cases of cardiac arrest annually in the U.S. – 4,000 of which were primarily caused by heart problems.
Dr. Jonathan Drezner, director of the University of Washington’s Center for Sports Cardiology, said there was “no scientific evidence” that either Covid-19 or the mRNA vaccines aggravated sudden cardiac arrest, often referred to as SCA, in athletes.
“SCA was the leading cause of sudden death in athletes while exercising and exercising long before the pandemic even started,” Drezner said. “There is no evidence that the cases shown in this video were caused by a vaccine.”
Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines have been linked to a rare risk of myocarditis, a disease that causes heart inflammation and occurs primarily in young men and teenagers. However, people tend to recover quickly, and health officials have concluded that the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks.
Experts point out that Covid-19 itself also carries the risk of myocarditis.
Dr. Jonathan Kim, chief of exercise cardiology at Emory University School of Medicine and a team cardiologist for the Atlanta NFL, NBA and MLB teams, also denied claims that such heart problems are on the increase in athletes.
“One of the most important points that we all in the sports cardiology community really want to highlight is that there have been tragic cases of athletes dying before Covid disease and tragic cases of sudden after the Covid infection ceases Give cardiac arrest, “said Kim said.
Yet the claims are circulating widely online and gaining prominence 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 440,000+ Twitter followers, saying, “Safe and effective?”
Malone put it out in late November, around the same time a lawyer sent an injunction on behalf of the West family. He didn’t respond to an AP request for comment, but tweeted that he removed the video after learning it had been “treated”.
While a lack of detail makes it impossible to review every case mentioned in the “HighWire” video, many that the AP was able to investigate were unrelated to Covid-19 vaccines. A local report showed that environmental factors such as heat exhaustion or other framework conditions could have played a role.
An early version of the video featured clips of Keyontae Johnson of the University of Florida collapsing during a basketball game, as did other compilations. Johnson’s breakdown, however, was in December 2020 before vaccines were widely available. University officials confirmed to AP that he was not vaccinated at the time.
Others featured in the video included Florida teenager Ryne Jacobs, who collapsed while training tennis in January 2021, and Danish soccer player Christian Eriksen, who suffered cardiac arrest during a game against Finland on the pitch this June. Both were not vaccinated, according to the Jacobs and Eriksen Club family.
The video was updated weeks later after addressing issues with some of the stories in it. Johnson and Jacobs’ cases were removed after it was determined that they are “no longer relevant due to timing or newly disclosed medical records or testimony,” Bigtree said in a statement sent via email.
West’s story stays in the latest iteration, as do other controversial cases, like that of Jack Alkhatib, a 17-year-old South Carolina college student who died during soccer training in August. His mother, Kelly Hewins Alkhatib, said an autopsy revealed that he had a rare heart disease that was unrelated to vaccines.
Some of the other athletes reportedly received the vaccine, although the status of many others is not clear. At least one, Dutch speed skater Kjeld Nuis, reportedly suffered pericarditis after being vaccinated, but posted on Instagram shortly after that he had recovered.
For West’s family members, who worked through their Play for Jake Foundation to raise awareness of Sudden Cardiac Arrest, it was disturbing to see his story being put to the service of spreading anti-vaccine misinformation. His mother, Julie West, asked if those behind the videos ever took parents’ feelings into account.
“My tragedy of losing my son is always angry and thinking that someone would use it to their advantage is very angry,” she said. “It is amazing to me that there are such people who want to spread the word or have their own agenda.”
Information on this article was contributed by Mark Long of The Associated Press.