Does bin Laden have Marfan syndrome?

Is Osama suffering from a rare disease that can cause sudden death?

Topics: Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden, Taliban, Health,

Does bin Laden have Marfan syndrome?

If what some medical experts say is true, it may not require a military strike to kill Osama bin Laden. For several years now, reports have been circulating that claim the 45-year-old is quite ill, sees doctors regularly and may have a heart problem. The evidence is sketchy, but some see signs that bin Laden could die suddenly.

Marfan syndrome is a potentially fatal disorder of connective tissue, and some believe it’s jeopardizing the life of al-Qaida’s elusive leader. Bin Laden would be in good company: Some say Marfan would have killed Abraham Lincoln if John Wilkes Booth had missed his mark in 1865. It also appears to have claimed the lives of Jonathan Larson, author of the musical “Rent,” who died on the eve of the production’s 1996 Broadway debut; Chris Patton, a University of Maryland basketball star who died during a pickup game; and Flo Hyman, an Olympic volleyball player who died at 31 in 1986. The aortas of all three ripped in a manner consistent with the disorder. Charles de Gaulle and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff are also believed to have had Marfan.

Although Marfan syndrome, like sickle cell anemia, is often the product of an inherited genetic mutation, determining whether someone has the disease is tricky. Experts say one in 10,000 people have it, but that thousands are unaware that they are affected. The National Marfan Foundation estimates that more than 200,000 people in the United States have Marfan syndrome or a related connective tissue disorder. “It’s a very complicated diagnosis to establish,” says Dr. Hal Dietz, a geneticist at Johns Hopkins University, who led the team that discovered the mutant gene responsible for Marfan. “There is no DNA test that can absolutely confirm whether someone has it.”

Because there’s no screening process or dead giveaway that a person has the disease, a Marfan diagnosis is an intricate process of elimination that almost always begins by sizing up someone’s physical features. Marfan sufferers typically have an unusual outward appearance, often called Marfanoid. More often than not, the disease strikes very tall people. They tend to be lean and lanky, with long, spidery fingers, curved spines, scant muscle, crooked chests and elongated faces and heads.

“I can be in a shopping mall or go to the beach and see people who might have the diagnosis,” Dietz says. “Often you can get the impression that their legs and arms are far too long for the size of their trunk.”



In addition, patients can develop joint problems, severe nearsightedness, spinal fluid complications and detached retinas. Many are severely flat-footed. Most problematic, the majority of Marfan sufferers have an enlarged aorta, the body’s largest blood vessel. When the aorta is oversized, it is prone to rupture, which usually means death. This enlargement can also cause chest pains, dizziness and shortness of breath, as well as high blood pressure and shaking legs.

Currently, Marfan syndrome is incurable, but if diagnosed early enough and monitored, patients can have a normal life span. Those who go untreated often die in their 30s and 40s from an aortic dissection.

Judging by photos and the FBI’s physical records, Osama bin Laden could be a candidate for the diagnosis. He is said to be between 6 foot 4 inches and 6 foot 6, which is apparently unusual for his family. He is thin, bony and has little muscle; he weighs only 160 pounds. And he uses a cane — possibly the result of connective tissue or back problems. Other information about the leader of al-Qaida suggests he may have a heart condition. His facial structure also resembles that of people with Marfan.

“He is Marfanoid,” says Dr. Richard Devereux, a clinician who treats patients with the illness at the Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. “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.”

Though people have long speculated about bin Laden having Marfan, federal officials won’t answer questions about his health. “We don’t discuss the medical conditions of our enemy commanders,” says Maj. Jay Steuck, a Defense Department spokesman. And a Central Intelligence Agency spokesman says, “We don’t do unclassified medical summaries.”

Off the record, one official told me there’s been a lot of speculation about bin Laden’s health and that he wasn’t sure whether it was genuine or generated by the multimillionaire’s spin machine to make the leader seem more heroic. After all, what better way to gain sympathy among followers than to suggest he has an uncommon disease and has overcome all sorts of nasty obstacles to thwart his enemies? What’s more, if he is ultimately killed by the United States, his supporters could conceivably argue that a rare medical disease killed him instead.

Stoking the mystery of bin Laden’s health is his habit of wearing flowing robes, head coverings and a full beard: It’s difficult to get a clear sense of his physical attributes. There’s no way to tell if he has a distorted chest bone, for one. Even so, reports came out last year that bin Laden’s hands were shaking and that two doctors from the United Arab Emirates were smuggled into Jalalabad, Afghanistan, to care for him. At that time, Yossef Bodansky, staff director of the House Task Force on Terrorism, told the New York Post: “We are getting a lot of reports and rumors. By all accounts, bin Laden is not a healthy man and is under a lot of stress.”

David K. Schenker, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agrees that bin Laden’s size is atypical for his surroundings. “I lived in the Middle East, and I never ran into anyone that tall,” he says. But when I asked him if he heard about bin Laden’s being sick, Schenker said, “What are we talking about — the one where he is supposed to have kidney failure or liver disease?” He pointed out that it’s common for figures like bin Laden to be followed by rumors of fatal illnesses.

Should bin Laden have Marfan syndrome, the stress of cave-hopping and trying to outrun Allied cruise missiles could prove deadly. “People with the disease are told not to engage in heavy exercise,” says Dr. Darwin Prockop, director of the Center for Gene Therapy at Tulane University. “If Osama bin Laden has Marfan, he is in danger of sudden rupture of the aorta and sudden death.”

Mark Francis Cohen is a journalist based in Washington, D.C.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>