Carlo Urbani, the new hero of two worlds


The Italian doctor discoverer of the SARS virus, who operated in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam

It is March 29, 2003 when Italy learns that his citizen, Dr. Carlo Urbani, died at the Bangkok hospital due to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), an atypical form of pneumonia appeared in the South-East Asia that same year. 

Only then, people become aware of the extraordinary work carried out by the Italian doctor, the first who has isolated the virus and one of the first SARS victims. As the Superior Health Institute declares, "its early SARS report has placed the global surveillance system in alarm and it was possible to identify many new cases and isolate them before the hospital health personnel were infected. Thanks to the isolation of the virus, it was possible in a short time to develop a vaccine and place effective care measures to reduce its diffusion ".

Urbani, married with 3 children, after his specialization in infectious diseases at the University of Ancona, was immediately attracted by the challenge that international health launches to humanity, first in Mauritania with the WHO and then in Cambodia with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). In April 1999 he was elected president of MSF Italy and joins the delegation that collects the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the organization. After Cambodia, his commitment takes him to Laos and then, in April 2001, Urbani moves with his family to Hanoi as coordinator of WHO health policies in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, China and the Philippines.

Despite the organizational responsibilities, fighting forgotten diseases and saving human lives always remains Urbani's main mission. On February 28, 2003, the doctor is called by a French private hospital in Hanoi to deal with a case of atypical pneumonia that had hit an American businessman. From the ascertained symptoms, he immediately understands that the man is facing a new type of contagious virus.

The main suspicion falls on an epidemiological outbreak already observed in Guangdong, a southern China region where the SARS virus had spread for months, kept hidden by the Beijing authorities from the world community. A delay that proves fatal and contributes to the uncontrolled spread of the virus. 

Urbani senses the threat of the new virus, completely unknown to the human body, without a therapeutic protocol or vaccine, and therefore capable of evolving in a very short time into severe bilateral pneumonia, potentially lethal. Thus, the Italian doctor, by raising the alarm to the Government and the WHO, convinces the local authorities to adopt preventive isolation and quarantine measures to limit its spread.

Unfortunately, he did not imagine that to have been already infected. Urbani learns about this on March 11, during a flight from Hanoi to Bangkok, Thailand. He asks to be hospitalized in solitary confinement and 18 days later he dies, leaving the provision that a sample from his lungs is taken after his death, in order to analyze it and test a vaccine against SARS.

Urbani's researches are still relevant today, and in these months of health emergency, they acquire even greater importance. The information provided by the doctor on how to contain the infection - including the measure of quarantine - are the basis of today’s WHO protocol against pandemics.

His commitment and dedication to work were recognized by Kofi Annan himself, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, who after his death testified as follows: "We will never know how many millions of deaths SARS would have caused because Dr. Urbani made sure to avoid it. He leaves an illuminating example in the community and we will remember him as a hero in the highest and truest sense of the term”.

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