Amid all the news about Osama bin Laden’s private life -- the home videos, the dyed beard, the reports of a medicine chest stocked with Avena syrup either to soothe a sour stomach or rev a flagging libido – comes a renewed rumor about the terror leader’s health.
Within days of the raid by Navy SEALS at a Pakistani compound, skeptics were resurfacing claims that it wasn’t actually a gunshot to the head last week that killed bin Laden at all. It was Marfan syndrome, a rare connective tissue disease that can cause disfigurement and sudden death.
That was the theory from Dr. Steve R. Pieczenik, a former state department official and apparent conspiracy theorist, who alleged years ago that bin Laden actually died in 2001 from the genetic disorder some claim affected Abraham Lincoln. His comments were broadcast last week on The Alex Jones syndicated radio show.
Back then, after the 9/11 terror attacks, medical experts weighed in on bin Laden’s tall, frame, lanky limbs and long face, all classic physical symptoms of Marfan syndrome. The disorder is also characterized by less visible problems such as severe nearsightedness, joint troubles and heart problems that can lead to the sudden rupture of the aorta.
“He is Marfanoid,” Dr. Richard Devereux was quoted as telling Salon.com nearly a decade ago. “He seems to have long fingers and long arms. His head appears to be elongated and his face narrow … It’s certainly conceivable that he has the Marfan syndrome and could be evaluated for it.”
Devereux, a New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center expert who treats patients with Marfan syndrome, doesn’t want to talk about bin Laden now, a hospital spokesman said.
But Dr. Hal Dietz, a geneticist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who first mapped Marfan mutations, said the theory isn’t any more valid now than it was then.
True, bin Laden had some physical characteristics linked to Marfan syndrome, which affects about 1 in 5,000 people.
“He was quite tall and he had a long, narrow face,” Dietz said.
But bin Laden didn’t have deep-set, downward-slanting eyes of those with Marfan syndrome. He had no skeletal deformities and no evidence of heart problems that might have resulted in an aortic tear or rupture. There seems to have been no sign of the dominant genetic disorder in his children, Dietz said.
In fact, Dietz – who is so familiar with the signs he often spots people with Marfan in public places like restaurants and theme parks – says he wouldn’t have flagged bin Laden as a potential patient at all.
“I think it’s pure speculation with minimal basis in fact,” Dietz said.
With bin Laden, however, it'll likely take more than mere facts to put this rumor -- or any other -- to rest.