WHO commemorates the 20th anniversary of the death of Dr Carlo Urbani

Today, 29 March 2023, WHO commemorates the 20th anniversary of the death of Dr Carlo Urbani (Castelplanio, Italy, 1956 – Bangkok, Thailand, 2003), a WHO staff member who lost his life during the successful efforts to contain the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Vietnam.

Carlo grew up in a rural area in the Marche region of central Italy and qualified as a physician. In 2000, after extensive experience as a clinical doctor in the department of infectious diseases at Macerata Hospital in Italy, as well as a period in Cambodia with Médecins sans Frontières, he joined the WHO office in Vietnam as the officer responsible for the control of tropical and parasitic diseases in the greater Mekong region. While there, he conducted pioneering work on mapping and control of schistosomiasis mekongi, a neglected tropical disease, then highly endemic in villages along river Mekong in Laos and Cambodia.

In late February 2003, Carlo was requested to visit the first SARS patient identified in Vietnam, who had been admitted to the French Hospital in Hanoi. There, he immediately recognized the potential threat posed by the highly transmissible, lethal, and at-the-time unknown respiratory infection.

Consequently, he worked tirelessly to convince the local health authorities of the need to adopt exceptional safety measures, including isolating suspected cases, use of protective measures by medical personnel, screening travellers and limiting international travel. These measures were adopted in Vietnam and, with WHO coordination, were extended thereafter to neighbouring countries, thus slowing the pace of the epidemic in its earliest stages.

While the causal agent of the infection was still being identified and containment measures were being scaled up, Carlo sadly contracted SARS himself and his condition deteriorated rapidly; he died a few weeks later, following admission to hospital in Bangkok.

On 5 July 2003, WHO declared that SARS had been successfully contained.

In 2018, WHO’s Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus unveiled a plaque in Dr Urbani’s memory at WHO headquarters in Geneva. The plaque’s text recognizes the instrumental role he played in the early detection of the disease and in the implementation of global containment measures, noting that Dr Urbani “acted in the finest tradition of the World Health Organization and set an inspiring example to all those who seek to serve humanity as public health professionals”.

The memory of Carlo Urbani is still alive in the community of public health professionals who dedicate their life to neglected tropical diseases.

On the 20th anniversary of Dr Urbani’s death, Dr Ibrahima Socé Fall, Director of WHO’s Global Programme for Neglected Tropical Diseases, said, “COVID-19 has shown us all too clearly the incalculable debt we owe to dedicated, courageous, and clear-sighted public health officials in the face of new and rapidly spreading infectious diseases. Dr Carlo Urbani epitomised the ideals of public service. His early and impassioned warnings about SARS saved countless lives and it is right that we recognise and remember his sacrifice, just as it is right for us to show our gratitude and respect for the courage and commitment of all public health workers who risk their own lives for the good of our world family.”