Related topics

SARS Pioneer Gave Life Pusruing Virus

April 16, 2003

LONDON (AP) _ When doctors at the Hanoi French Hospital were baffled by a patient’s flu-like illness, they called on Dr. Carlo Urbani for answers.

``If there was an infectious disease problem, you called Carlo Urbani,″ said his colleague, Lorenzo Savioli.

Urbani was a doctor who believed in staying close to his patients, and within a month the mysterious new disease had killed him.

The condition Urbani identified in the Chinese-American businessman on Feb. 28 _ severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS _ proved to be the first severe new disease of the 21st century with global epidemic potential.

Urbani, an infectious disease expert with the World Health Organization’s office in Hanoi, Vietnam, rapidly determined that he was dealing with something quite strange. He quickly notified others of his findings, drawing the world’s attention to the new disease.

On March 29, he died of SARS at age 46, but not before leaving his mark.

The speed with which he recognized the potential scope of the illness is credited with containing Vietnam’s initial outbreak and his death on the front lines has prompted some scientists to call for the SARS virus to bear his name.

Urbani was born in Castelplanio, Italy, in 1956 and spent his early career as an infectious diseases specialist at the General Hospital in Macerata, Italy.

As a young doctor, Urbani was always involved in health programs in developing countries, Savioli recalled.

He was also president of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) in Italy and was among the delegation accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. He said at the time that he considered it his duty to stay close to victims.

Urbani started working for the World Health Organization in 1998 on efforts to eradicate childhood parasites, his main area of expertise. He helped set up programs in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines.

``He was absolutely convinced that deworming and school health was key for the development of children,″ said Pascale Brudon, chief of the WHO’s Vietnam office.

He finally settled at the Hanoi field office in May 2000.

``The Vietnamese government and the hospitals there used to use him as a clinical adviser or consultant in infectious diseases because he was so skilled in that,″ said Savioli, WHO’s chief of parasite diseases.

``Carlo was a very smart clinician. When he saw the patient in Hanoi he immediately recognized that this was something strange.″

A few days after Urbani had examined the first patient, Johnny Chen, it appeared that too many doctors and nurses were falling ill too.

Urbani, along with others at the WHO in Hanoi, persuaded the doctors to seal off the hospital and brought in tougher infection control measures, shuffling the beds around so that all the people with the mysterious illness were isolated in one area.

They quickly got Vietnam’s Ministry of Health on board, and worked to alert the public about what little information they had regarding the disease and what to do if symptoms occurred. They also readied other hospitals and doctors for a potential onslaught of sick patients.

``He loved ... to treat patients, and I think in the French Hospital he took quite a lot of risks in helping them to deal correctly with the patient,″ Brudon said. ``At the beginning, we didn’t know what it was so when he was called the first day, I am not sure that he did protect himself correctly and the patient was very very contagious at that moment.″

Urbani was ill when he arrived March 11 in Thailand, where he was to make a presentation on childhood de-worming. He was taken to a hospital in Bangkok and died from SARS 18 days later.

Two days after his death, the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that in tribute to Urbani’s work defining SARS, perhaps the virus could bear his name. And a team led by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention proposed the name Urbani SARS-associated coronavirus.

However, not everyone is enthusiastic about the idea.

``Most times, when viruses are named after somebody they are named because they find them or because they discover a disease, not because they die from it,″ said Dr. David Heymann, WHO’s chief of communicable diseases. ``I think dying from a disease and having your name put on it is sort of a negative context and I don’t think that’s appropriate. I think his family should have a say in it anyway.″

Heymann said it is the place of the virus’ discoverer _ Malik Peiris and his team at Hong Kong University _ to name it. A university spokeswoman said the researchers have not yet discussed a name.

Update hourly