A small shrine was built Việt Pháp Hospital to remember medical professionals who died during the SARS outbreak in 2003. — Photo tienphong.vn
Seventeen years ago, I knew a man whose quick thinking triggered a global health response that saved countless lives during an outbreak of a mysterious and highly contagious disease. He was tireless in his pursuit to track it, find its origins and contain its spread. He did everything right, but sadly died doing so. He was Dr Carlo Urbani. His life and memory are resonant in this time of a global pandemic.
On February 26, 2003, a man was admitted to the French Hospital in Hà Nội. He presented a high fever, dry cough, and a mild sore throat.
A wonderful UN colleague, Dr Carlo Urbani was then working in the World Health Organisation (WHO) office in Hà Nội. As an expert in parasitic infections, he responded to a request from the French Hospital to assist in investigating a “severe case of flu”.
Carlo’s diagnosis was clear: this was an unusual case of an “unknown contagious disease”. It was soon identified as severe acute respiratory syndrome, better known as SARS.
Given the gravity of the situation, Dr Urbani alerted WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. His prompt action triggered a global public health response that eventually saved the lives of countless numbers of people.
Things developed quickly. By March 5, seven health workers became ill, with similar symptoms. Ten days later more than 40 cases were reported in Hà Nội. People were afraid and wanted to understand what was happening.
In early March, Dr Urbani briefed UN colleagues on the situation. He explained that he had been tracking a mysterious outbreak in China, trying to obtain information on what was going on just across the border. He was tireless in his pursuit of the relevant data.
He also informed us that he had spent several days at the hospital co-ordinating infection control, quarantine interventions and maintaining the morale of hospital staff. I asked about his safety and he advised that he was taking the necessary precautions.
Sadly, on March 29, 2003, Dr Urbani died of complications related to SARS. He was a public health hero who died because of his belief that it was a doctor’s duty to “stay close to the victims.”
I will never forget his words, when he was questioned whether he should be on the front lines, given that he had a wife and three young children. He was adamant: "If I cannot work in such situations, what am I here for - answering e-mails, going to cocktail parties, and pushing paper?"
Việt Nam’s response to SARS remains an inspiring story. It largely depended upon timely and resolute government action and on the ability of Dr Urbani to trace the movements of the businessman in the French Hospital back to Guangdong province.
Dr Urbani’s decision to isolate the hospital when staff started coming down with flu-like symptoms was far-sighted. This action saved many lives, although tragically not his own. It demonstrates the value of assembling the available information and having the courage to act on it.
Looking back it is clear to see what Dr Urbani and the government of Việt Nam did right. They spoke the truth and acted decisively. Dr Urbani was brave and actions he took were farsighted. Lessons he and the government showed us many years ago are relevant today, and unfortunately, will be pertinent in the future as these viruses continue to emerge. We can only hope future leaders take note.
* Jordan Ryan is United Nations Resident Co-ordinator Việt Nam during 2001-2005. He was also the former UN Assistant Secretary-General, Director, Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery, United Nations Development Programme