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In memoriam: Carlo Urbani

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Carlo Urbani first examined Johnny Chen, a Chinese-American businessman, on Feb 28, 2003, two days after Chen had been admitted to Hanoi's Vietnam- France Hospital for a suspected avian flu infection that would turn out to be severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Urbani is now widely credited as the first World Health Organization (WHO) officer to identify the disease.

But a month and a day after first meeting Chen, Urbani himself succumbed to SARS in a hospital in Bangkok. "When people became very concerned in the hospital, he was there every day, collecting samples, talking to the staff and strengthening infection control procedures", Pascale Brudon, WHO representative in Vietnam, said in a statement after Urbani's death.

Urbani first realised he had been infected with the disease on March 11. It was dangerous work, but Urbani told his wife, Giuliani Chiorrini, "If I can't work in such situations, what am I here for? Answering e-mails, going to cocktail parties and pushing paper?" WHO's Lorenzo Savioli told The New York Times earlier this month.

Urbani was one of 80 people, including many health-care workers, infected by Chen, who also died. Urbani first worked for WHO in 1993, when Savioli asked him to research hookworms in the Maldives. "Nobody at headquarters was going to believe we were spending our days in the Maldives over fecal samples", Savioli told The New York Times. That work led Urbani to study and treat hookworms around the world, and to be the first to report transmission of Schistosoma mansoni in Mauritania.

Along the way he took postgraduate courses in malaria and medical parasitology at the Istituto Superiore di Sanita in Rome, Italy. He moved on to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in 1995, working in Cambodia to effectively control Schistosoma mekongi.

"Targets of this control were usually the most disadvantaged groups of [the] population, and in those missions one objective was to assess the most costeffective and sustainable interventions", he stated in his curriculum vitae.

Urbani became president of the Italian branch of MSF in April, 1999, the year the international group won the Nobel Prize for Peace. "He is remembered as a highly motivated doctor who insisted on remaining an active participant with vulnerable people around the world", MSF said in a statement.

"MSF remembers his positive attitude and uncompromising support along with his exceptionally generous nature." Urbani worked in various parts of Asia for WHO since 1998, when he served as a short-term consultant in parasitology in Hanoi.

He worked in the same capacity in the Philippines and in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, before accepting a long-term position as a public-health specialist in Hanoi in May, 2000. Urbani earned his medical degree in 1981 from the University of Ancona, Italy, and then trained in infectious diseases at the University of Messina for 3 years.

During medical school, he also travelled to Africa to study malaria and other parasites. In 1990, he became deputy chief of the department of infectious diseases at Macerata, Italy's general hospital in Ancona, a position he held off and on while going on other missions around the world.

Urbani wrote dozens of journal articles on parasites and their control. Urbani is survived by his wife, Giuliani, and their three children: Tommaso, Luca, and Maddalena.

Colleagues from around the world have already decided on an appropriate memorial for Urbani: naming the virus that causes SARS-mostly likely a coronavirus- after him. "Because of his early detection of SARS, global surveillance was heightened and many new cases have been identified and isolated before they infected hospital staff", WHO said in a statement. "In Hanoi, the SARS outbreak appears to be coming under control."