Colds and flu

Updated 20 March 2015

Where is Putin?

Vladimir Putin hasn't been seen in public for almost two weeks, and nobody seems to know why. Has he been struck down by a serious illness, or is back pain keeping him bedridden?


Russian President Vladimir Putin isn't one to shy away from the limelight, and recent developments in the Ukraine, which have greatly increased tensions between his country and the West, have caused him to be even more bombastically omnipresent than ever. Until now.

As far as can be told, nobody outside of Putin's inner circle has seen him since the 5th of March. This is an uncharacteristically long absence for him, but the real rumors started when he cancelled a trip to Kazakhstan late last week.

Health issues have been cited as one of those most likely reasons for his absence, though precisely what ailment could keep him out of the public eye for so long is a matter of debate. Three separate theories have emerged as the most credible: flu, back pain, or a stroke. A Kazakh official simply said "it looks like he has fallen ill."

Flu: The most recent theory to have arisen. TV Rain, an independent news channel in the country, claims that several well-placed but unnamed sources told them that Putin had succumbed to a bad case of flu and had retreated to his residence in Valdai to recover, reported the Guardian. This rumour is certainly believable, Flu is prevalent in Russia, as it is virtually everywhere and Russia's cold weather is likely to make it even easier to pick up. However, Putin is known to live a largely healthy lifestyle. A fascinating portrait of the leader published in Newsweek describes Putin's routine as including strenuous daily exercise followed by both hot and cold baths. He also eats well, including plenty of fresh fruit, and largely avoids drinking alcohol. These factors make it harder, but far from impossible, to contract flu.

Back Pain: As per a Reuters report "An Austrian newspaper reported on Sunday that Russian President Vladimir Putin was suffering from back problems, and that a Viennese orthopaedic expert had travelled to Moscow to treat him. The Kurier paper did not name the doctor or give the source of the information for its report." Putin is 62 years old and his highly active lifestyle could well have caught up with him. Severe back pain can make movement extremely painful, potentially necessitating several days of bed rest. However, it is unlike Putin to allow simple physical pain to derail his important schedule. There is precedent here, in 2012 Russian media was alight with rumours that Putin had some unspecified back problem. A certain cancer of the spine, Spinal Sarcoma, was suggested. This condition is very rare, but very serious and the fact that Putin is, or was, in good health, suggests that might not be the case.

Stroke: The most serious of the three suggested ailments and one that would surely have necessitated an urgent and lengthy break from his commitments. Evidence for this theory comes from a letter purportedly written by a doctor at Moscow's most esteemed hospital which claimed that Putin had received urgent treatment for an ischemic stroke. If this is indeed true, the results could be lie anywhere on an extremely broad spectrum. Provided, as one would expect, the President received swift and high-quality medical care, there could be little or no lasting damage. However, a severe stroke can result in severe impairment of any brain function, coma or, of course, death. Again, Putin's healthy lifestyle could provide some protection against stroke, the immense pressure of his job could easily result in increased blood pressure and heightened risk of having an aneurysm.

Read: Stress, depression up stroke risk in elderly

The stroke theory holds additional credence due to a prior theory that Putin has suffered a stroke once before. An article published in the Atlantic in 2013 featured a claim put forward by Brenda Connors, who works to build profiles of world leaders for the US Navy. Connors believed she had detected a "striking" irregularity in the gait of the leader. Such issues are common side effects of a stroke if the movement centres of the brain are affected. Though other doctors suggest it could also have resulted from Polio, which was epidemic in Russia during Putin's youth.

Any one of these theories is medically plausible, however, the former two in particular raise an awkward question, which is why they simply don't admit it. If Putin is ill with Flu, saying so would alleviate much of the wild conjecture around his disappearance. However, this would go against Putin's image as a strong, masculine leader, the type who doesn't get struck down by flu. That the entire government bends to his will is a sign of his singular importance to the country, a latter-day dictator as the Newsweek article had it. 

Of course medical issues could have nothing to do with Putin's extended absence. Other theories suggest that he is away to be present at the birth of a love child with his "secret lover" Alina Kabayeva or, more fancifully, that he has been deposed in a coup. The latter, though unlikely due to Putin's sky-high approval ratings, was given credence by unconfirmed reports that his chief bodyguard of 13 years, Viktor Zolotov, had been found dead according to a number of posts including this from LiveLeak.

Putin is supposed to be meeting with the president of Kyrgyzstan later today, potentially ending the speculation but if he doesn't fulfill this commitment, the rumours are likely to only get wilder.

Or, of course, he could be riding a weasel, which in turn is riding a woodpecker.

Read more:

Seasonal flu vaccine even less effective than thought 

How to get on top of back pain 

Obama's health report


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Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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