The Cambodian medical community this week is mourning the death of Dr Carlo Urbani, a longtime ally of the country’s fight against disease and one of the latest victims of the severe acute respiratory syndrome, an illness he helped diagnose, medical officials said Monday.
“It is a terrible loss. He exemplified what the whole profession is all about,” said Dr Stefan Hoyer, the World Health Organization’s coordinator for communicable disease control in Cambodia.
Urbani, 46, died in Bangkok Saturday after contracting SARS in Hanoi, where he diagnosed the pneumonialike illness and informed WHO of its existence.
“Because [Urbani] inspired an early onset of global alert, there’s a hope that it can be contained before becoming pandemic,” Hoyer said. SARS has killed at least 61 and sickened more than 1,600 in 13 countries across the globe.
Urbani first came to Cambodia in September 1996, when he served Medecins Sans Frontiers as an expert on schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease transferred by infected people defecating in rivers and contaminating edible snails, Hoyer said.
It was in this position that Urbani administered drugs to villagers suffering from schistosomiasis and other diseases in areas where Khmer Rouge rebels were known to be operating.
Jetting via speed boat up the Mekong River to Kratie and Stung Treng provinces, Urbani and National Malaria Center workers directed mass drug handouts in mine-ridden villages.
“His case was heroic. He served a noble cause beyond the call of duty,” Hoyer said.
Although schistosomiasis still exists in Cambodia, Urbani helped lower the prevalence of parasitic eggs in Kratie from 70 percent to 17 percent, lowering the disease burden to zero, Hoyer said.
“He put in place all the mechanisms to continue these programs [of diagnosis and treatment],” said Louis Joubert, an MSF malaria project officer.
After completing his work with MSF in 1997, Urbani became a regional communicable disease specialist for WHO. He is survived by three children and his wife.
There currently are no confirmed SARS cases in Cambodia, WHO’s Dr Severin Von Xylander said Monday. He said that the six people who died in Ratanakkiri in early March were not sickened by SARS or cholera and likely suffered from a complicated bout of the flu.