Could Typhoid Have Killed Bin Laden?

ByABC News
September 23, 2006, 2:25 PM

Sept. 23, 2006 — -- Scholars have speculated typhoid fever killed prominent figures from history including Alexander the Great. Could it have taken out terror leader Osama bin Laden, too?

On Saturday, French newspaper L'Est Republicain cited a document from the French intelligence service that said Saudi officials believed the al Qaeda leader died from typhoid in August.

According to the U.N. World Health Organization, typhoid is generally transmitted through human contact.

"People become infected after eating food or drinking beverages that have been handled by a person who is infected or by drinking water that has been contaminated by sewage containing the bacteria," the WHO's Web site says.

Former French defense ministry official Alexis Debat, an ABC News consultant, said bin Laden's modus operandi of laying low makes the idea that he died from typhoid difficult to believe.

"You only get typhoid nowadays, almost, in refugee camps, when you eat food that a lot of people are sharing with you," Debat said. "Obviously this is not the case for Osama bin Laden. He is not surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people. So that makes it extremely unlikely."

But Dr. Peter J. Hotez, Chairman of George Washington University's Department of microbiology and tropical medicine, isn't so quick to dismiss the possibility that bin Laden could have been infected.

"I'm sure he's not living in the best of circumstances," Hotez said. "He could've ingested contaminated water or food.

Hoetz said the Indian subcontinent has among the highest incidences of typhoid in the world. He wouldn't be surprised if the disease existed on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border.

"It's plausible that if he's living in conditions with poor sanitation and under extreme stress, it's certainly possible he'd be exposed to typhoid fever," Hoetz said. "What's a little surprising is that it's a treatable infection."

With prompt diagnosis, proper care and antibiotics, typhoid has a slim fatality rate.

In the meantime, French and U.S. officials are working to determine the credibility of the report that bin Laden may be dead.