Why are so many young people dying?
This question has been asked to me many times during this epidemic process. Especially after 24-year-old Buffalo Bills football player Damar Hamlin suffered a heart attack at an NFL game earlier in the month, and again, Lisa Marie Presley suffered a fatal cardiac arrest on January 12.
Shortly after Hamlin’s incident, cardiologists appeared on sports programs and described a rare condition called “commotio cordis,” in which a blow to the chest could cause ventricular fibrillation, a life-threatening heart rhythm. Meanwhile, messages and videos on social media were making false claims that these cardiac emergencies were caused by the Covid-19 vaccine or previous infections.
His mother, Priscilla, said Lisa Marie Presley died at the age of 54 after being hospitalized on Thursday. After the news broke, social media agitated with conspiracy theorists trying to falsely attribute Presley’s death to vaccines.
These tragic scenarios illustrate the misinformation, disinformation and outright confusion that have clouded our lives over the past three years. Rumors and urban legends are not new to the medical world. Claims are often difficult to confront as there may be some element of truth in them. For example, a health myth we hear often centers around cold weather causing pneumonia. while pathogens to be Hanging in the cold for a longer time, in dry air and especially in our nasal passages, the immune defense may be impaired, cold air is not contagious by itself.
Another fuel for misinformation is that we categorize life as if we live in a binary world where there is only good or bad, truth or falsehood, health or disease. But we do know that patients can have it. multiple causes and diseases. Luckily for Damar Hamlin, his doctors understood this and investigated the underlying issues that caused cardiac arrest.
While there are reports that mRNA vaccines and Covid-19 infections can cause cardiac complications, the lead author of one study emphasizes that “the risk of myocarditis following Covid-19 vaccine is quite small compared to the risk of myocarditis following Covid-19 infection.” In another study published in Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine in August 2022, researchers found that the risk of myocarditis was more than seven times higher in people infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.
Prior to the pandemic, I treated young, male athlete patients who required medical and surgical intervention for structural abnormalities in their heart muscle, vessels, and electrical pathways. Two patients in their early 20s even experienced “sudden death” while playing sports. One was a marathon runner and the other was a college football player. In an instant their hearts stopped and they collapsed onto the field; Fortunately, they received emergency medical care and were successfully resuscitated. They were found to have abnormal electrical pathways in their hearts that cause cardiac arrhythmias. Structural abnormalities are the most common cause of sudden cardiac events among competitive athletes.
The CDC estimates there are 942,431 extra deaths directly and indirectly related to COVID-19 in the United States. Over-death is defined as the difference between the observed number of deaths in a given time period and the expected number of deaths in the same time period. From 2021 to week 43 of 2022, there were 124,000 more deaths between the ages of 0-44 in the US compared to 2015-2019. An insurance company estimates that death rates for those aged 18-64 are now up 40%.
Is it due to the underlying disease caused by this infection, delayed or missed diagnosis and treatment of other health conditions, or something else entirely? It is this uncertainty that can fuel conspiracy theories, including those that focus on vaccine side effects.
The CDC notes that there is no indication that the excess deaths are related to the vaccine. SARS-CoV-2 behaves like a Trojan horse that finds its Achilles heel. It invades and destroys cells, tissues and organs where there is sensitivity. It damages the vascular system, regulates the immune system and is neurotropic. The long Covid or post-acute sequelae of Covid-19 (PASC) can have a constellation of more than 200 symptoms that can occur even weeks and months after mild or asymptomatic infection. There are also reports of vaccine side effects or side effects.
Examining the individual effects of infections, vaccines, and/or underlying conditions can be difficult. For example, I have a relative who was diagnosed with diabetes in 2021. Although they were not symptomatic for Covid-19 prior to this diagnosis, they were in high-risk states and may have had an asymptomatic infection. I assumed the virus was causing this new diagnosis, as studies have shown that the risk of diabetes increases by over 66 percent after infection. However, I’ve also found studies that suggest a smaller risk for vaccine-induced hyperglycemia. They also have increased weight and stress levels since the pandemic began, and have a family history of diabetes/genetic predisposition. What was the etiology? Could it be just one or all of the above? This illustrates how difficult it can be to pinpoint the exact cause and effect.
There are several factors that can shape our beliefs — political climate, where we grew up, popular culture, etc. The politicization of masks and vaccinations cannot be ignored; Nor can it be known that the virus is constantly mutating and evolving. And while information about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines is not always immediately available to the general population, it is changing rapidly.
We are entering a paradoxical period in this pandemic. Much progress has been made, but the virus is still one step ahead. To alleviate fear or fill any gaps, we seek “information” that aligns with how we see our world and fits our beliefs. It is important to critically review the data by asking who is conducting and funding the studies. Is there any bias or motivation behind the allegations? Is this research study statistically significant?
To navigate these turbulent waters, we need to stop paddling and assess the situation. Are those considered “anti-vaccine” making malicious claims, or is it self-sacrifice overshadowed by rhetorical fervor? A robust and respectful public discussion is needed that allows all parties to share their information and concerns.
In medicine, we often say that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Letting light in and increasing transparency can help heal wounds during this pandemic.
Saralyn Mark, MD, hosts the ‘Always Searching’ podcast and is a former medical/policy advisor to the White House, NASA and the US Department of Health and Human Services.