Italian epidemiologist Carlo Urbani was the first person who identified SARS as a highly contagious disease. He worked as an infectious disease expert in World Health Organization’s office in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, and warned WHO against this deadly disease. As a result of his early warning, millions of lives around the world were saved. But sadly, while treating SARS infected patients, Dr. Urbani became infected with the virus himself, and later on died due to complications from the condition. As a medical doctor with a specialization in infectious and tropical diseases from the University of Messina, he joined Italian Catholic NGO Mani Tese as a young man and since then dedicated his life to the medical profession. After gaining experience in epidemic medicine fields he became an external consultant of the WHO and joined Médecins Sans Frontières. He travelled widely and spent long periods in places like Vietnam and Cambodia treating people suffering from infectious diseases. He also played an important role in tracking the epidemiology of the hookworm. He was the first person who documented the transmission of Schistosoma mansoni. Besides being an epidemiologist, Carlo Urbani was also a passionate photographer, an expert ultra-light airplane pilot, and a good organist.
Childhood & Early Life
Carlo Urbani was born on October 19, 1956, in Castelplanio, Italy, into a middle class family with a strong Catholic background. His father was a teacher at the Ancona Commercial Navy Institute and his mother was a headmistress of a primary school.
Urbani graduated in medicine from the University of Ancona in 1981. He then specialized in infectious and tropical diseases from the University of Messina and earned a postgraduate degree in tropical parasitology in 1984.
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After completing his studies, Urbani continued his work at the university.
He was interested in tackling the challenges of international health. In the late 1980s, he visited Mauritania several times with a group of volunteers to support its ministry of health in parasitic disease control.
In 1990, he joined the Macerata hospital. While at Macerata, Urbani got in touch with WHO, and from 1993 began working with it on temporary assignments in the Maldives, Mauritania and Guinea.
In 1995, he went to Maldives to track the epidemiology of the hookworm (a serious intestinal infection) and to train laboratory technicians to test for worms.
It was Urbani who for the first time documented the transmission of Schistosoma mansoni. More than 200 million people across the world were affected by this infection.
When Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) was looking for an infectious disease specialist, they contacted with WHO and got in touch with Urbani. He joined them in Switzerland in 1997 and worked in Cambodia.
In Cambodia, he worked to control the influence of a parasitic flatworm namely Schistosoma mekongi, responsible for diseases like intestinal schistosomiasis. This ailment damages the liver, causing fibrosis that eventually kills the patient.
Urbani took effective measures to reduce its effect. With the implementation of his treatment process, diagnosis procedure became affordable.
In 1999, Urbani worked as the President of the Italian section of MSF. In the same year he got invitation to Oslo to receive Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of MSF.
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In association with the Ivo de Carneri Foundation he took efficient measures to prevent parasitic diseases in developing countries. He also became a member of its scientific committee.
In 2000, WHO posted Urbani to Hanoi, as an expert in communicable diseases for Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
He recommended effective steps to control food borne trematodes and cestodes. Around seven million people in Asia were affected by trematodes worm.
He supported the idea of regular treatment of praziquantel affected children to avoid cholangiocarcinoma of liver. This is a severe type of cancer.
He revealed his multi talented ability through his penchant towards photography, his expertise as ultra-light airplane pilot and as a good organist.
Carlo Urbani was the first WHO officer to identify the outbreak of the deadly SARS disease while diagnosing a patient other doctors had failed to diagnose properly. He immediately recognized that he was dealing with a highly contagious disease and helped the WHO in responding quickly to the major epidemic.
Awards & Achievements
As the president of the Italian chapter of Médecins Sans Frontières, Urbani was one of the individuals who accepted the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of that organization.
Personal Life & Legacy
Urbani tied the wedding knot with Giullani Chiorrini. The couple had three children.
In February 2003, Urbani was asked to treat an American patient at the French Hospital of Hanoi. Doctors thought the patient was suffering from pneumonia. After examination Urbani perceived that the patient was the victim of a highly infectious disease.
Besides informing WHO about it, he also approached the Health Ministry of Vietnam to take proper measures. Hospital workers were advised to use high filter masks and double gown and most importantly, to isolate patients.
Arrangements were made to examine travellers as a preventive action. The worldwide alert made by WHO against this disease received global response.
Sadly, while treating SARS affected patients in Hanoi, he himself was infected with this virus.
On his way to Bangkok, he felt feverish. After remaining in intensive care for 18 days, he passed away on March 29, 2003 in Bangkok at the age of 46.