Cardiologists have hailed a ‘landmark’ and ‘reassuring’ study showing no spike in sudden cardiac deaths in young athletes.
Debunking a major claim peddled by anti-vaxxers in the wake of Covid, scientists discovered such cases have actually fallen after examining 20 years of US college sports.
Deaths remained stable even during the pandemic, they claimed, with rates having plunged by about 29 per cent every five years.
Academics credited the drop to more effective and frequent screening systems for heart conditions in young athletes, as well as better access to emergency treatment like on-site defibrillator kits.
Professor Marc Dweck, an expert of clinical cardiology at the University of Edinburgh, told MailOnline that the study, whilst not focused on this topic, should reassure the public about Covid vaccine safety.
A ‘landmark’ US study has shown there has been no sudden rise in young athletes dying of sudden cardiac events, contrary to claims of anti-vaxxers, with rates (red line) decreasing 29 per cent every five years on average. The blue line represents incidence of deaths not related to cardiovascular health. figures are scaled on rate per 100,000 athlete years
This graphic shows the cause of death of the young athletes that were investigated by US and Swiss researchers, of 1,102 total fatalities 143 were cardiac events
‘It is fair to say that in this population there does not appear to be any sort of spike in sudden death related to Covid or the vaccine,’ he said.
‘This is of reassurance and is supported by the recent literature that suggests that the rates of myocarditis related to even severe Covid and the vaccine are low.’
The study itself, published in the journal Circulation, identified a total of 143 sudden cardiac deaths in young athletes (aged at least 17) between 2002 and 2022.
American and Swiss researchers reached this figure by analysing medical databases, insurance claims and media reports for deaths of athletes who played in sports in the US’s National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Of the 143 deaths, the most common determined cause of a fatal cardiac event was idiopathic left ventricular hypertrophy or possible cardiomyopathy and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
These are conditions relating to physical problems with the heart muscles.
In about one in five cases the cause of the cardiac death could not be determined.
Eight deaths were found to be caused by myocarditis, a dangerous inflammation of the heart.
Myocarditis is most commonly caused by a viral infection, exposure to a toxin like carbon monoxide or drugs like cocaine.
The condition got global attention during the Covid pandemic after it was revealed that mRNA vaccines, like those made by Moderna and Pfizer, increased the risk of getting it, particularly in young men.
But of the eight myocarditis deaths recorded, only one occurred after Covid burst onto the global stage in 2020.
An autopsy of this case revealed no indication that the myocarditis was caused by a Covid infection, either.
The myocarditis risk was exaggerated by anti-vaxxers who seized upon video or news reports of young athletes collapsing on field, like those of NFL safety Damar Hamlin and basketball prodigy Bronny James, as ‘proof’ Covid jabs are dangerous.
Despite anti-vaxxers often sharing emotive and distressing videos online, there is usually no confirmation the young person in question had even got the jab.
Professor Dweck said sudden cardiac death in spot is naturally a tragic and often high-profile event, but research like the recent study help show how incredibly rare such cases are.
‘Studies like this help to put those horrible events in the wider context and to demonstrate that they are relatively rare,’ he said.
‘Screening programs appears to be having an effect in reducing their incidence.’
Dr Raghav Bhatia, an expert in sports cardiology at the globally respected St George’s University of London, the UK’s leading site for investigating sudden cardiac deaths in young people, told this website the ‘landmark’ and ‘robust’ US study echoed their own observations.
‘In our experience of looking after young individuals including athletes, both from a clinical and academic perspective, we have not seen an increment in young deaths due to Covid or the vaccine,’ he said.
This ONS data shows the rates of cardiovascular deaths in men in England in over time. Rates for younger men spiked in 2020, before the jabs were dished out, then generally returned to pre-pandemic norms
Danish soccer player Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest at Euro 2020
Eriksen collapsed on the pitch in dramatic scenes in 2021
‘This appears to be similar to the North American experience in young individuals and athletes.’
Dr Bhatia said investigating cardiac deaths in young people takes both time and extensive expertise and people should avoid speculating on causes.
‘Often the televised nature of such tragic events has far reaching consequences for the individual, their families and communities as a whole,’ he said.
‘Speculation is often a source of disinformation and may lead to unintended consequences.’
There has undoubtedly been a string of high profile, but non-fatal, on-pitch collapses in the past few years, like Hamlin’s and James’s in the US as well as Danish footballer Christian Eriksen‘s cardiac arrest at the Euro 2020.
However, Dr Bhatia said he was currently aware of no peer-reviewed evidence that cardiac events in sport are on the rise in elite sport.
All three athletes’ cardiac emergencies were later determined to be unrelated to myocarditis.
For example, Eriksen’s collapse was pinned on an undetected ventricular fibrillation, a heart rhythm disruption.
Meanwhile, Hamlin’s was down to case of commotio cordis, where the heart stops due to a high velocity impact from an object, like a ball, to the chest.
Finally, James’s was later determined to have been caused by a congenital heart defect, a physical problem with the organ that, while present since birth, had been undetected until his collapse.
The new study also uncovered information about what kind of young athletes are most at risk of a sudden cardiac death.
Basketball players were at the highest risk of any sport, with researchers estimating it was over one in 2,000 over a four-year period.
Sports like basketball have previously been linked to a larger risk of sudden cardiac events due to its high intensity ‘start-stop’ style of play.
The data also show that across all sports, Black athletes were three times as likely to have a cardiac death than their white counterparts.
By sex, male athletes had quadruple the risk of sudden cardiac death compared to females.
Senior author of the study, Dr Bradley Petek, an expert in sports cardiology, said while it was positive deaths had decreased over the last 20 years there was still room for improvement.
Anti-vaxxers used Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s collapse in January earlier this year to push their message
Dramatic footage at the time showed Hamlin collapsing, falling backwards and lying motionless on the floor
The 18-year-old son of NBA superstar LeBron was rushed to hospital after he collapsed and suffered a cardiac arrest during a basketball workout at the University of Southern California
‘We have the opportunity to greatly improve outcomes through ongoing training and education of CPR, providing better access to defibrillators, and promoting the use and adherence to emergency action plans,’ he said.
Dr Shelley Miyamoto, past chair of the American Heart Association’s council on lifelong congenital heart disease and expert in paediatric heart disease, who was not involved in the study, said the data showed areas for future research.
‘This study helps us recognize that there still are some disparities that need future study,’ she said.
Dr Miyamoto, who was not involved in the study, said the fact that almost 20 per cent of cases had an unconfirmed cause of death was surprising and techniques such as genetic testing for inherited heart conditions should be used.
‘That is particularly troublesome to everyone involved,’ she said.
‘If we can’t understand the cause of the sudden cardiac death, it is going to be difficult for people to accept and understand how to prevent it in the future.’
The study had a number of limitations. While researchers explored multiple databases, there is no mandatory recording system for cardiac deaths in young athletes meaning some fatalities may have been missed.
Secondly, the authors noted there was ‘significant variability’ in the approach to autopsy in the study period, which again could impact the results.
Global reports of myocarditis following Covid vaccination, particularly in young men, spooked health chiefs in 2021, when the vaccines first started being dished out to younger demographics.
But rates in Britain were eventually found to be lower than in the US and Israel, where concerns peaked.
Some experts attributed this to the UK’s longer intervals between doses, eight weeks compared to four, and this giving the body greater time to recover.
This, followed by data showing the risk of myocarditis from a jab was much lower than a Covid infection triggering the condition, led to the jabs continuing to be recommended. Yet it sparked valid questions over the merits of vaccinating kids, who faced a tiny risk of becoming seriously ill by the virus.
British data on vaccine safety is gathered through the UK Government‘s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
A 2022 study led by academics at Imperial College London suggests almost 20million lives were saved by Covid vaccines in the first year since countries began rolling out the jabs, the majority in wealthy nations
Its latest report, from November last year, found there had been 851 reports of myocarditis following a Covid vaccination in the UK since the start of the rollout, of which 15 were fatal.
Considering the millions of jabs that have been dished out to Britons, this provides an overall risk of 10 suspected cases of myocarditis per million doses.
This is likely to be an undercount because not all cases would have been logged or reported to official channels, though reports don’t necessarily mean a confirmed case.
The MHRA states that studies show the risk of myocarditis from contracting the virus itself has been estimated at about 1,500 cases per million patients.
Officially less than 100 deaths from Covid vaccines have been recorded the UK. Only a tiny fraction, about three, occurred in under-30s.
While such deaths are tragic, they pale in comparison to the almost 230,000 lives estimated to have been saved by Britain’s historic Covid inoculation campaign.
And that’s not to mention the knock-on benefits, with jabs credited for ending the cycle of paralysing lockdowns that crippled the economy and the NHS.
Myocarditis is an uncommon disorder. Most of the time, it is caused by an infection that reaches the heart
Myocarditis is heart inflammation caused by a viral infection, such as COVID-19.
In severe cases, the inflammation can weaken the heart, cause an abnormal heartbeat, or even lead to death.
Symptoms typically include chest pain or shortness of breath.
Patients can treat the condition with medication aimed at regulating heartbeat and improving heart function. Some rare cases have required patients to have a device implanted in their heart to regulate heartbeat.
Myocarditis is a mild, temporary condition in the vast majority of cases, experts say.
Heart inflammation is uncommon in pro athletes who’ve had a mild COVID-19 infection and most don’t need to be sidelined, according to a 2021 study conducted by major professional sports leagues.
This illustration shows normal heart muscle compared to inflamed heart muscle due