Over the last ten years conflicting reports on Osama Bin Laden’s health have filled the headlines. Some say he had serious kidney problems and needed access to dialysis technology, while others mention an enlarged heart, hypotension (low blood pressure), shrapnel injuries, kidney stones, and even diabetes type 1. Can we separate fact from fiction, or will we never know?

Many of us have had an image of a frail man with failing organs wandering through the mountains.

Pakistan’s ex-president, Pervez Musharaff, in 2002 said he had kidney problems. One story had him seeking kidney care in a Dubai hospital in 2000. But the words were never supported by any compelling evidence.

According to Bin Laden’s wives, who are currently being questioned in Pakistan, he never left the two rooms of the house in several years. If there was a need for dialysis, how could he have managed? By burying him at sea one day after his death, the chances of carrying out an autopsy, which would have provided many of the answers, have gone. His body was washed, wrapped and prayed over before being dumped off an aircraft carrier into the Arabian Sea.

His identity was confirmed by photographs, fingerprints, a DNA test and testimonials from one of his wives.

According to an ABC TV news report, there may be clues from items collected from his compound. Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle East Affairs, Congressional Research Service said (in a personal capacity) that there is no evidence pointing to any kidney problem and a need for dialysis, or that he had kidney stones. He said It never panned it that that was true..” When asked where the rumor had come from, Katzman said he did not know, but said there was talk of kidney weakness within the Bin Laden family. He suggests that this fact got extrapolated and perhaps blown out of proportion. He added that Bin Laden’s body was not in US hands long enough to do an autopsy, or perhaps there was a decision not to do one.

An autopsy would have cleared up another rumor, that Bin Laden had at some time been injured by shrapnel.

Bin Laden’s Medicine Cabinet – soldiers found sunflower oil, eye drops, antiseptic nasal spray, petroleum jelly, and olive oil. When asked whether its contents may point to any health problem, Katzman said “I don’t think so. I have.. any person who appears in this show.. has these things in their medicine cabinet.” He was fairly sure that the contents of the medicine cabinet do not tell us anything about his state of health.

Releasing the pictures – when asked whether releasing the pictures of a dead Bin Laden might give any indication of his state of health, the expert said that it depends on how comprehensive the pictures are. A shoulder injury from shrapnel may have been spotted in a photograph.

A 2008 Time magazine said Bin Laden was on the verge of death from advanced kidney disease. The article quoted a CIA memo which referred to some medications he was allegedly taking, saying he had between six and eighteen months to live.

Perhaps we will never know.

Written by Christian Nordqvist