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Bacteria Linked to Sudden Death in Young Hockey Players

WebMD Health News

Sept. 30, 1999 (Indianapolis) -- Swedish researchers have found a link between the sudden cardiac death suffered by two hockey players and a type of bacteria that has never before been detected in humans. The two men were found to have an inflammation of the heart that is associated with sudden unexpected death in young people.

The bacteria, called Rickettsia helvetica, is transmitted to humans via tick bites and is related to other bacteria that cause illnesses such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever. This group of bacteria also has been associated with various types of heart disease characterized by inflammation of the heart muscle, or myocarditis.

Kenneth Nilsson, MD, and others from the Uppsala University Hospital in Uppsala, Sweden, performed autopsies on the two men, aged 19 and 33 years, who died suddenly while playing ice hockey. The men showed signs of perimyocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle and surrounding membranes.

"The two cases described in our report showed changes in the tissue similar to those found in known rickettsial diseases," said Nilsson. The researchers published the results of their study in the current issue of the British medical journal The Lancet. "R. helvetica ... may be [an important cause] of perimyocarditis, which can result in sudden unexpected cardiac death in young people."

Although she considers the article interesting, Jean Smith, MD, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio, does not think this will become a major cause of sudden death, especially in the U.S.

"R. helvetica is not found in the U.S., being mostly limited to Scandinavian countries such as Sweden," she says. "While other rickettsial diseases have been found to cause cardiac problems, these are rare occurrences in this country. This is not likely to be an issue in North America. "

David A. Meyerson, MD, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Medical School and national spokesperson for the American Heart Association, agrees and adds that this should not worry people traveling to these countries for business or pleasure.

"While the scientific application may be very important, the numbers are so small that the average person should not be concerned about travel to Scandinavia," says Meyerson. "There is no reason to believe that travel should be curtailed in any way. In general, people should not be overly concerned about this disease."


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