||"If I cannot work in such situations, what am I here
for - answering e-mails, going to cocktail parties, and pushing paper?"
Dr. Carlo Urbani, 2003
"Carlo Urbani, il sogno realizzato di un medico -senza frontiere!"
Elisabetta Nardi - Egidio Ridolfo s.j.
Dr. Carlo Urbani (Castelplanio, Italy October 19, 1956 – Bangkok, Thailand March
29, 2003) was an Italian physician and the first to identify severe acute
respiratory syndrome (SARS) as a new and dangerously contagious disease. His
early warning to the World Health Organization (WHO) touched off a massive
response that probably helped save the lives of millions of people around the
In 2003, Urbani was called in to The French Hospital of Hanoi to look at patient
Johnny Chen, an American businessman who had fallen ill with what doctors
thought was a bad case of influenza. Urbani realized that Chen did not have flu,
but probably a new and highly contagious disease. He immediately notified the
WHO, triggering the most effective response to a major epidemic in history. He
also persuaded the Vietnamese Health Ministry to begin isolating patients and
screening travelers, thus slowing the early pace of the epidemic.
The World Health Organization has recognized that Dr. Urbani probably saved a
large unknown number of lives, because of his early detection of the Severe
Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
Due to the work he did in Hanoi treating SARS infected patients, Dr. Urbani
became infected with the virus himself. On March 11, as he flew from Hanoi to a
conference in Bangkok, Thailand where he was to talk on the subject of childhood
parasites, Urbani started feeling feverish on the plane.
A colleague who met him at the airport called an ambulance. They sat in chairs
eight feet apart until an ambulance arrived 90 minutes later, because its
attendants stopped for protective gear first.
His Bangkok hospital room had been jury-rigged as an isolation ward, so his wife
could only talk to him by intercom. Ms. Chiorrini saw him conscious just once.
As his lungs weakened he was put on a respirator.
In a conscious moment, Dr. Urbani asked for a priest to give him the last rites,
and according to the Italian Embassy in Bangkok, said he wanted his lung tissue
saved for science.
After 18 days of intensive care, Carlo Urbani died on 29 March 2003 at 11:45 AM.
Urbani received his medical degree from the University of Ancona and worked for
a time as a general practitioner, before starting a career in infectious
diseases. He was a past president of the Italian chapter of Médecins Sans
Frontières and was one of the individuals who accepted the 1999 Nobel Peace
Prize on behalf of that organization. He was employed by the World Health
Organization and based in Hanoi, Vietnam, where he mainly worked on combatting
parasitic diseases, but was generally expert on infectious diseases. He was
married and had three children.
His life and professional experience have been narrated by:
- Former WHO colleagues Marco Albonico and Lorenzo Savioli in the book "Le
malattie dimenticate" ("Neglected diseases") published by Feltrinelli in 2004.
- Journalist Lucia Bellaspiga, in the book "Carlo Urbani - il primo medico
contro la SARS" ("the first doctor against SARS") published by Ancora in 2005.