Iowa Hawkeyes fans storm the field after the match-up against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Kinnick Stadium on October 9, 2021 in Iowa City, Iowa ( GETTY / AFP / Matthew Holst)

Posts misrepresent study on myocarditis risk for college athletes

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Social media posts claim a study found 50 percent of athletes in a major US collegiate sports league have myocarditis linked to the Covid-19 vaccine. This is false; the study examined athletes who had infections before the shots were publicly available and found a far lower rate of heart inflammation.

"Oh my god...about 50% of athletes in the big 10 have had cardiac scans and have Myocarditis without symptoms yet," says an August 27, 2022 tweet referencing one of the oldest US college athletic conferences.

The post includes a video that features Robert Malone, a virologist and immunologist who has previously promoted false claims about vaccines and was banned from Twitter for breaking the platform's Covid-19 misinformation policies. In the clip, he interviews Kirk Milhoan, a Hawaii doctor who is under investigation for promoting unproven Covid-19 treatments.

Malone asks: "Are we going to see significant numbers of death in damaged hearts in California, from the vaccine?"

Milhoan responds: "If we allow those kids to stay active and play, I think there's a lot of myocarditis under the radar."

As evidence, Milhoan cites a study on heart risk for athletes in the Big Ten, which includes colleges such as Michigan State University and Pennsylvania State University.

Screenshot of a tweet taken August 31, 2022

The interview, viewed more than 235,000 times on Twitter, also spread on various video-sharing websites, in online articles and on Instagram and Facebook.

Myocarditis is a rare side effect of the Covid-19 vaccines. However, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) say the benefits of vaccination outweigh its known risks -- and that those who contract the coronavirus are at a much higher risk for myocarditis.

The study cited by Milhoan also did not examine athletes vaccinated against Covid-19.

"Our study looked at cardiac MRI of athletes with Covid-19 infection, not with the vaccine," Saurabh Rajpal, an associate professor of internal medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and one of the paper's co-authors, told AFP in a September 1, 2022 email.

The study was published in May 2021 in JAMA Cardiology, a peer-reviewed medical journal. It examined 1,597 US collegiate athletes in an effort to set protocols for a safe return to competition.

Researchers found that, when symptom-based screening was used, only 0.31 percent of participants were found to have clinical myocarditis. The use of MRI scans found an increased prevalence of clinical and subclinical myocarditis, with 2.3 percent of athletes having the condition -- not 50 percent, as claimed on social media.

Jean Jeudy, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who serves as the cardiac MRI core leader for the Big Ten Cardiac Registry, confirmed the study participants were not vaccinated.

"The initial study itself was during the original onset of Covid, so this is actually even pre-vaccination," he said September 2.

In fall 2020, the Big Ten postponed competition in part due to an increase in myocarditis cases among athletes who had contracted the coronavirus. The move was unrelated to Covid-19 vaccines, which had not yet been rolled out -- and Jeudy said concerns about myocarditis predate the pandemic.

"If you were an athlete, and you were found to have myocarditis, you were essentially restricted from play," he said.

Jeudy said the vaccine is recommended to athletes because it can protect against the development of myocarditis following a Covid-19 infection.

AFP has fact-checked other claims about myocarditis here, here and here.