Death of Ali Abbasi triggered by lupus

THE popular BBC Scotland broadcaster, Ali Abbasi, who died on Friday, had been suffering from lupus, a disease of the immune system which is not usually fatal.

It is thought the disease had weakened the 42-year-old presenter’s natural defences and caused infections which brought on liver and kidney failure and then pneumonia.

Abbasi, who died in Glasgow’s Western Infirmary, was one of the estimated 50,000 Britons who suffer from lupus. In most cases the symptoms of the illness are controlled through drugs.

Details of the illness emerged as 200 mourners attended Abbasi’s funeral at the Central Mosque in Glasgow yesterday, including his family and many of his former BBC colleagues.

In accordance with Muslim custom he was laid to rest within 24 hours of passing away, though it is expected another service will be organised to allow more of his friends and former colleagues to pay tribute to the travel news presenter.

It is understood Abbasi’s organs began to fail over a week ago, and he was taken into the intensive care unit at the Western Infirmary and placed on dialysis. For a short time his condition seemed to be improving but later on in the week he contracted pneumonia and one of his lungs collapsed. He went into a coma and his last 48 hours were spent on a life support machine. On Friday the decision was taken to switch the machine off.

The causes of lupus, which affects one person in 3,500, are not fully understood although it is believed to be genetic and to lie dormant until triggered by other factors, such as another illness, stress, trauma and in some cases high exposure to sunlight. There is no known cure but the disease is not contagious.

When a person suffers acutely from the condition, the immune system produces far too many antibodies which, circulating through the bloodstream, cause reactions leading to inflammation anywhere in the body. Major organs may be damaged in an irreversible way.

Symptoms include depression, extreme fatigue, joint pain and severe rashes. Others include mouth ulcers, hair loss and anaemia. In earlier times, the disease was recognised by the appearance of a severe facial rash, which is rarely seen today because of advances in treatment of symptoms. The rash was considered similar to the wound left by a wolf’s bite, giving rise to the name lupus for the illness, derived from the Latin for wolf, lupus vulgaris.

Studies have shown that the disease is most prevalent in people of Afro-Caribbean origin, and that people of Indian or Pakistani background are less likely to be hit than Afro-Caribbeans but are more at risk than whites. The disease is also more common among women than men, with nine out of 10 sufferers being female.

Many sufferers of lupus are able to lead full lives if their symptoms can be controlled, but in a small number of cases the illness is fatal. Many of those who die as a result of the disease succumb in their 30s or 40s.

The mourners at the service included Ken MacQuarrie, controller of BBC Scotland. Others included BBC colleagues Louise White and John Milne and STV veterans Fiona Ross and Bernard Ponsonby.

Abbasi’s death shocked friends and colleagues. One close friend said: "It was such a shock. He phoned me less than a fortnight ago and was really in good form and talking about getting together for a night out. I can’t believe he’s gone."

A BBC Scotland insider added: "The whole atmosphere around here is terrible. There is a gap in the newsroom. No one can believe it. He was only 42. We are missing him dreadfully. It’s all so horrendous."

Abbasi was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and moved to the UK with his family in 1963. He joined BBC Scotland as a travel presenter in 1994 from Glasgow City Council, where he worked as an art gallery assistant.

As well as presenting travel news at the BBC, Abbasi worked as an audio technician with outside broadcasts and radio cars. These jobs brought him into frequent contact with many Scots in public life, and he became friends with First Minister Jack McConnell.

Former Nato Secretary-General Lord Robertson described Abbasi as a "wonderful guy".

Speaking to BBC Radio Scotland, Robertson said: "He was a complicated character at times but at the same way he was irrepressible. He had an infectious humour. The voice was a trademark. And he was just somebody who made a huge impression on anybody who met him."

Abbasi’s decision to learn Gaelic was seen as a major encouragement for the language which has suffered a major decline in speakers in recent years. Gaels praised his near-perfect accent and pronunciation and he featured in a number of campaigns to raise the profile of Gaelic.

Alasdair MacLeod, cultural development officer for Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which helps fund a number of Gaelic courses, said: "He was the highest-profile celebrity to learn Gaelic and we will struggle to get anyone to fill his place."

• For more information on the Lupus disease click here