Cardiologists and GPs say they're noticing a rise in concern about vaccine-related myocarditis and pericarditis, but the number of presentations are far outweighing the number of diagnoses.
Myocarditis is an inflammation of the heart muscle which can lead to chest pain, fatigue and shortness of breath. Pericarditis is swelling and irritation of the tissue surrounding the heart and often causes sharp chest pain.
The conditions can be caused by the Covid-19 vaccine, but they are far more likely to be caused by Covid-19 infection.
Christchurch man Sebastian Eades developed pericarditis while infected with Covid-19 earlier this year. He said despite being a healthy 23-year-old, the experience was scary.
“I'd developed a chest pain on my 5th to 6th day of having Covid. I felt like I was getting a light heart burn, it'd come for an hour, dissipate…about an hour or 2 later it would come back. 2 or 3 days later it was consistent pain throughout the whole chest.”
Eades called his doctor and ended up in hospital, and is now recovering.
“I was highly stressed, I was scared, I didn't know what was going on. My heart rate was through the roof. Breathing diminished, heart rate diminished.”
Christchurch-based cardiologist Dr Paul Bridgman said he’s not seeing many cases of vaccine-related myocarditis and pericarditis, but cases where the patient has Covid are regular.
“At the moment we'd get a phone call a day at least or a patient a day we'd see where they've got covid and body's been turned on to attack their heart.”
So far there have been three vaccine-related deaths in New Zealand which are still being investigated by the coroner.
Preliminary investigations have found the three people had myocarditis, and Auckland cardiologist Dr Tom Pasley says public awareness of those cases has created heightened anxiety around vaccine side effects among patients.
“We’ve seen a lot of patients worried about getting myocarditis and pericarditis…most of the time they have the symptoms but they have no objective evidence of heart involvement.
“It's pretty routine that these patients will get a blood test, and that’ll tell us whether or not there’s been heart involvement. Sometimes they'll get an ECG, which is an electric recording of their heart and that can also tell us what’s going on, but by far and away most of these tests are normal which is reassuring for the patient somewhat and also the clinician. It’s a very, very, very small minority of these patients that go on to have active heart inflammation or myocarditis or pericarditis.”
“There’s two groups we’ve seen. One group which is vaccine-hesitant, they’ve delayed their first vaccine, they’re really concerned about getting the vaccine and this group of patients tend to get a lot of symptoms. There’s also a second group who are not vaccine hesitant, happy to go forward with the vaccine…this group of patients have also had similar symptoms, an obvious vaccine reaction... All we can do is hopefully reassure them that their hearts not inflamed, the outer lining is not inflamed and long term they’ll have a good prognosis.”
Dr Bryan Betty from the Royal NZ College of GPs said he’s noticed a similar uptick in concerns.
“Towards the end of last year, the start of this year, there was a heightened awareness of myocarditis and pericarditis as a potential follow-on from the vaccine and certainly this year it has picked up with the publicity that has been out there about the two conditions” Betty said.
“It can be a range of things, it can be heightened anxiety about the condition itself, it can be other things like what we call chest wall pain or a number of other conditions, and the minority is pericarditis or myocarditis.”
He said ultimately, it’s good that people are coming to medical professionals with their concerns.
“Anyone who has concern about possible chest pain, irregular heartbeat or shortness of breath should be presenting to their doctor, getting it checked out, regardless of fact there is heightened anxiety, people should be getting it checked out.”
Dr Pasley said for those on the fence about getting their booster, most people needn’t worry.
“The risk of myocarditis with the booster is extremely rare…we're talking in the highest risk group about 1 in 10,000 but for vast majority of people you’re looking at a 1 in 100,000 chance of getting myocarditis….For the vast majority of people getting the booster is safe and absolutely the right thing to do.”