The conspiracy theory that athletes are collapsing or dying after receiving a Covid-19 vaccine resurfaced this week after two prominent voices advanced the idea.
Sen Ron Johnson appeared on the conservative podcast "The Charlie Kirk Show” and falsely claimed that more than 22,000 deaths have been reported "in association with the vaccines," with many athletes among them.
"We've heard story after story. I mean, all these athletes dropping dead on the field, but we're supposed to ignore that," Johnson said.
A similar claim was also made by John Stockton, the Hall of Fame basketball player, who said Sunday that "over 100 professional athletes" had dropped dead after receiving the vaccine. He provided no evidence for the claim.
Health officials say the links between vaccines and athlete deaths are baseless, and there is no evidence to suggest the vaccine is causing more deaths or injuries among athletes. Professional leagues have not reported any rise in such cases. A representative from the National Football League (NFL) said there were no vaccine-related deaths or hospitalisations among roughly 3,000 players in the NFL. Ninety-five percent of the league’s players have been vaccinated.
A spokesperson for Johnson said the senator was referring to deaths worldwide and had talked about them because he believed they should be investigated by federal health agencies. Stockton could not be reached for comment.
Stories about professional athletes dying during soccer matches and basketball games after getting the jab have been a recurring conspiracy theory since Covid-19 vaccines were introduced.
On social media, users share links to local news reports about amateur athletes who died during games or while jogging. The articles rarely state whether someone was vaccinated or not and are usually published before the cause of death is determined. But these deaths, among otherwise healthy people, have gripped anti-vaccine communities and raised concerns about vaccine risks.
It is rare for athletes to suffer cardiac arrest during games, but it does happen. While athletes tend to be healthier than the general population, people with underlying heart conditions are more likely to experience complications when exercising.
In a 2015 study of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) players, researchers showed that risks varied by sport and gender. Male Division I basketball players faced up to 10 times the risk of sudden cardiac death compared with all NCAA athletes. Male athletes faced a higher risk than women, and Black men faced a higher risk than men overall, the study found.
"Folks who maintain good amounts of exercise throughout their life span, they end up at lower risk of having these sudden events," said Dr Meagan Wasfy, a sports cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, who published a review of the study. "But for that small period of time where you’re exercising, that risk goes up."
One list circulating about the claim included 543 unconfirmed reports of athletes around the world who have died or faced "serious issues" since 2021. It was published by the anti-vaccine website Good Sciencing.
The list was based on a mix of news reports and entries on the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, which relies on self-reported cases from patients and doctors. Most news reports did not mention whether the deceased had been vaccinated. Health officials warn against using VAERS to make determinations about vaccine risks.
There is a known and uncommon vaccine side effect, called myocarditis, that involves an inflammation of the heart muscle. Men and boys who receive the Covid-19 vaccine are at higher risk of developing the condition, which can lead to chest pain and shortness of breath. In very rare cases, it can lead to more severe complications, including death.
Doctors say the risk of developing myocarditis after getting vaccinated appears low and most people afflicted with the condition quickly recover. One study found that boys and young men infected with Covid-19 are up to six times more likely to develop myocarditis than people who received the vaccine.
As of Jan 20, VAERS had received 2,132 preliminary reports of myocarditis or pericarditis (an inflammation of the outer lining of the heart) among vaccinated people 30 or younger, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 48 million people ages five to 24 have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Health care providers are required to report any death after vaccination, even if there is no sign it was caused by the vaccine. VAERS has received 11,657 reports of someone dying at some point after receiving the vaccine, representing 0.002% of all vaccinated people.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.