There has been a lot of confusion about what may have happened to kill Jett Travolta, the only son of John Travolta, so suddenly at only 16 years old. This confusion is not surprising. It happens every time that we the public mix with what is essentially a private matter. Prurient public curiosity aside, somewhere in here may be a message about the need for compliance with seizure medication, a particular problem among adolescents, where medications are about 66 percent effective. There have been some reports that Jett's medication may have been stopped because it wasn't working. It is not yet clear whether the parents' belief in scientology kept them from seeking other treatments, or whether that would have made a difference in controlling Jett's seizures.
For what it's worth, here is my take on Jett Travolta's tragic death_
- It is unlikely that Kawasaki's disease (an inflammatory disease of blood vessels that also causes fever, lymph node swelling, and rashes) played a direct role in Jett Travolta's tragic death. Though this rare disease (4,000 cases per year) can affect the heart, and also cause seizures, it is also generally cured or in remission by age 5.
- It has never been confirmed that Jett Travolta suffers from autism, an illness which is characterized by difficulty relating to others. Autism does not cause seizures, though the incidence of seizures is 4-32 percent in autism and only 0.5 percent in the general population.
- Patients with epilepsy have a mortality rate 2-3 times that of the general population. Epilepsy-related causes of death in this population account for 40 percent of the deaths.
- Death from epilepsy frequently involves problems with breathing due to obstruction of the airways, buildup of fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema), or a cardiac arrhythmia resulting from a surge of hormones that accompanies a seizure. (the autopsy would not show an arrhythmia but would show damage to the heart or a problem with the lungs)
- Sudden, unexplained death in epilepsy accounts for 8-17 percent of these deaths.
- But in Jett Travolta's case, news reports would suggest that the most likely causes of death would be trauma-related (hitting his head on the bathtub during the seizure, or drowning). If a blow to the head caused bleeding in the brain, the autopsy will show that.
Dr. Marc Siegel is an internist and associate professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine. He is a FOX News medical contributor and writes a health column for LA Times, where he examines TV and movies for medical accuracy. Dr. Siegel is the author of "False Alarm: The Truth about the Epidemic of Fear"and "Bird Flu: Everything You Need to Know About the Next Pandemic." Read more at www.doctorsiegel.com
Marc Siegel, M.D. is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. He has been a medical analyst and reporter for Fox News since 2008.