No evidence rise in deaths due to unknown causes in Canada is linked to Covid-19 vaccines

26 August 2022
What was claimed

In Alberta, Canada, unknown causes of death are causing even more deaths than heart disease, strokes and diabetes combined.

Our verdict

“Other ill-defined and unknown causes” was the leading recorded cause of death in Alberta, Canada in 2021. However, there is no evidence these deaths were caused by the Covid-19 vaccines.

What was claimed

You can also call unknown causes by another name - SADS.

Our verdict

SADS (Sudden Adult Death Syndrome) refers to deaths from cardiac arrest where the cause cannot be determined. While some SADS deaths may be recorded as due to unknown causes, the two classifications are not the same.

A YouTube video shared on Facebook states: “In Alberta, Canada, unknown cause of death is causing even more deaths than heart disease, strokes and diabetes combined” and that in Alberta there have been “49% more deaths from unknown causes than from Covid.”

While the video does not explicitly mention the Covid-19 vaccines, it appears to imply that this increase in deaths recorded as due to unknown causes in Alberta, Canada is a result of the vaccine rollout. Many of the comments on the video reference this, and we’ve written about this issue previously as part of our work fact checking online misinformation

It’s true that, according to data published by Service Alberta’s Vital Statistics database, there were 3,362 deaths in Alberta in 2021 in which “other ill-defined and unknown causes” was listed as a cause of death, making it the leading listed cause of death in the province.

But the government there has since clarified that some of those deaths were still under investigation and the cause of death would eventually be updated. There’s no evidence to suggest a significant number of deaths have been caused by the Covid-19 vaccines in Canada.

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Deaths from unknown causes have not been linked to vaccines

While it’s true that deaths from unknown causes have not appeared as a leading cause of death in Alberta until recently, the number of deaths listed under the category appears to have been increasing since at least 2019.

“Other ill-defined and unknown causes” first appeared on the list of leading causes of death in Alberta in 2019, when 522 deaths were recorded with the classification, with this figure almost tripling to 1,464 in 2020 and again increasing to become the leading cause of death in the province in 2021. A spokesperson for Alberta Health told Full Fact: “There is no link between this increase and the COVID-19 vaccine rollout”.

We’ve previously written about attempts to link this increase to the Covid-19 vaccines.

Following the publication of the latest data in July 2022, a spokesperson for Service Alberta minister Nate Glubish told CTV News: “The 'other ill-defined and unknown cause of death' classification is given when a cause of death cannot be determined, or when a death is still under investigation with a medical examiner. Some deaths originally coded in this way are updated as final determination of cause of death are determined.”

He added that “this number will continue to be refined as final medical causes of death are determined”, and claimed that the number had already been revised down by 35% compared to previously published data.

Alberta Health told us that the data is always being refreshed as registrations are sometimes received for deaths that occurred many months earlier, and amendments for causes of death can occur when the cause of death is not assigned for months or even years after the death is registered. This process can be delayed further when there is an increased number of files to be assessed.

Full Fact has contacted Service Alberta to ask whether the figure of 3,362 deaths classified as having “other ill-defined or unknown causes” has been revised since this dataset was last updated on June 30, and will update this story if we hear back

Deaths from unknown causes are not the same as SADS

The video also claims that “you can also call unknown causes by another name - SADS.”

This isn’t true. SADS refers to Sudden Adult Death Syndrome—sometimes called Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome.

According to the British Heart Foundation, SADS is used to refer to deaths from cardiac arrest where the cause cannot be determined. It says: “The rhythm of your heart (which controls your heartbeat) is controlled by electrical impulses. If the electrical impulses go wrong, it can cause an abnormal heart rhythm known as an arrhythmia.

“Some arrhythmias can be dangerous if they’re left untreated, they can cause a cardiac arrest. Your heart’s rhythm and electrical impulses are no longer there after death, this means an abnormal heart rhythm can’t be found and the heart’s structure will appear normal. This is why the cause of the cardiac arrest can’t be found and SADS might be diagnosed.”

SADS is believed to occur as a result of a range of rare genetic conditions that predispose individuals to suffer cardiac arrests. It can affect people who have had no symptoms and have previously been fit and healthy and even taking part in competitive sports, as the video suggests. 

It’s possible some deaths due to SADS may be recorded as unknown causes, but the two classifications are not interchangeable.

As we’ve previously written, there is no evidence to suggest that deaths caused by the Covid-19 vaccines are being misreported as SADS deaths. The Canadian government’s department for national health policy told AFP Fact Check that it had seen no increase in SADS reports since the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out began. This also appears to be the case in the UK.

The British Heart Foundation says Covid-19 vaccines are safe for people with heart conditions and notes: “No vaccine is approved unless it is considered safe for people with long-term conditions, including heart and circulatory conditions, and including older people.”

As of 27 July 2022 the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has recorded 80 deaths from a type of blood clot in the UK that it has said may be linked with the AstraZeneca vaccine. Seven fatal suspected cases of myocarditis and pericarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle or the surrounding tissue respectively) have been “reported associated with” the Pfizer vaccine and six with AstraZeneca, according to the MHRA. On the myocarditis deaths, it also notes: “The majority of fatal reports describe underlying illnesses in these patients that could provide alternative explanations for the events reported.”

Image courtesy of Hermes Rivera

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