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A Hero in the Truest Sense

Carlo Urbani was born in Castel-planio, Italy, and graduated in medicine from the University of Ancona in 1981 where he received an advanced degree in infectious diseases. The challenge of international health had always attracted his interest.

In 1997 he joined Doctors Without Borders and worked in Cambodia where his work led to innovative approaches in the control of a parasitic flatworm transmitted only on the Mekong River. If left untreated… this serious disease irreversibly damages the liver and eventually kills the patient. He developed a simple questionnaire for children, asking about rocks where they bathed, to identify the students who needed regular treatment thus reducing the need for costly diagnosis.

On his return to Italy he continued his involvement with Doctors Without Borders and was invited to Oslo in 1999 to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on their behalf. He said that “health and dignity are indistinguishable in human beings and that it is a duty to stay close to victims and guarantee their rights.”

In 2000 he was recruited by the World Health Organization (“WHO”) to the Hanoi post as expert in communicable diseases for Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, where he recommended novel and successful approaches for the treatment and prevention of many endemic parasitic, infectious, and cancer causing diseases.

In late February of 2003, he was asked to advise on a case of suspected atypical pneumonia in an American businessman, Johnny Cheng, who was already gravely ill when admitted to the city’s French hospital. Immediately, Dr. Urbani understood the severity of the syndrome and was aware of the threat.

He advised hospital staff about protective measures, including patient isolation, high-filter masks and double-gowning, not routine measures in Vietnam. On March 9th Carlo met officials at the Vietnamese Ministry of Health. He explained the need to isolate patients and to screen travelers, despite the possible harmful effect on Vietnam’s economy and image.

He also notified WHO’s world infectious diseases surveillance system, leading to the worldwide alert which resulted in a concerted global response to a disease we now call Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS. Thanks to his dedication and prompt action, the world was put on notice and the epidemic was able to be contained in Vietnam.

During February and March his wife, Giuliana, repeatedly argued with him about his close work with the patients who had such a deadly disease. He said:

“If I cannot work in such situations, what am I here for — answering emails, going to cocktail parties and pushing paper?”

However because of close daily contact with the SARS patients, he did contract the infection. On March 11th he was airlifted to a hospital in Bangkok and isolated. Less than three weeks later at the age of 46 he died.

Dr. Carlo Urbani was passionate in everything that he did. Besides his work he was an accomplished photographer, an expert ultra-light airplane pilot, and a good organist. But it was his passion and dedication to his work and his patients that saved countless thousands of lives. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in his eulogy summed it up perfectly:

“My thoughts, prayers and deepest condolences go to Dr. Urbani’s wife, Giuliana Chiorrini, his children, family, friends and colleagues. I hope you will know that he will be missed greatly by his other family too — the United Nations family — and that he leaves an inspiring legacy among the global public health community as a whole where he will be remembered as a hero — in the best and truest sense of the word.”

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