Pauly Fuemana's rare disease revealed

Pauly Fuemana's friends saw symptoms of his illness as early as two years ago.
Photo: David White
Pauly Fuemana's friends saw symptoms of his illness as early as two years ago.

Pauly Fuemana, the creator of smash single "How Bizarre", had been suffering from a rare – but seldom fatal – neurological disorder before his death nearly three months ago of pneumonia.

Fuemana died of respiratory failure on January 31, but last month his brother Tony told the Sunday Star-Times that the family had been seeking answers from doctors as to the underlying cause of the star's early death, as they had been unable to get "concrete" information.

But Fuemana's death certificate, sighted by the Star-Times last week, shows that the musician had been suffering from "progressive demyelinating polyneuropathy", an auto-immune disorder similar to the nerve disease multiple sclerosis. It causes progressive failure of nerves throughout the body and is fatal in about 10% of cases.

The disease, also known as chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, is something of a medical mystery. It occurs when the body's immune system turns on itself, leading to inflammation of nerves throughout the body and a severe slowing in nerve signals. This leads to numbness and a loss of co-ordination, which worsens over time.

Many patients respond well to treatments that fight the inflammation, but others eventually become severely disabled. Aside from numbness and clumsiness, there can be issues with patients struggling to eat and developing malnutrition.

This appears consistent with reports that when promoting a comeback single in 2007, Fuemana was gaunt. At that time his speech was slurred, and friends have told the Star-Times that as far back as two years ago they had seen him shaking uncontrollably and collapsing on the street.

John Simcock, medical adviser to the Neurological Foundation, said that although demyelinating polyneuropathy was relatively easy to diagnose with nerve-function tests, the root cause has not been found – it appears to have no important genetic component and is not caused by trauma. While it is conceivable that the condition is triggered by a virus, no evidence for this has been found. It is seldom painful.

Fuemana shot to fame after the release of "How Bizarre" in 1995 by his presciently named group Otara Millionaires' Club. The single earned an estimated $11 million, and Fuemana toured the world on the back of it, but he quit the music industry in 2000, and subsequently struggled with depression, alcohol and drugs. After a period of rampant spending, Fuemana and his wife Kirstine sold their home on Auckland's North Shore in a mortgagee sale in 2002, and three years later were adjudged bankrupt.

Fuemana died in Auckland's North Shore Hospital, surrounded by a group that included Kirstine and their five children, aged between five and 12. Last month the Star-Times revealed that Kirstine is pregnant with Fuemana's sixth child, a boy, due in August, whose middle name will be Paul in honour of his father.

This month she told Woman's Day that Fuemana had been been ill for 18 months before he died, and that while the family knew his condition was life-threatening, "we didn't think he would pass away".

Sunday Star Times