He was born in Castel-planio to a middle-class family with a strong Catholic background. His mother was headmistress of the primary school, and had served as mayor.
His father taught at the Ancona Commercial Navy Institute. Carlo himself was elected a town councillor from 1980 to 1985. He graduated in medicine from the University of Ancona in 1981, and took a higher degree in infectious diseases three years later.
He continued this work at the university and from 1990 at Macerata Hospital. He had always been attracted by the challenge of international health.
In the late 1980s, he visited Mauritania several times with a group of volunteers to support its ministry of health in parasitic disease control.
Carlo Urbani was the first person who identified SARS as a highly contagious disease. He worked as an infectious disease expert in World Health Organization’s office in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, and warned WHO against this deadly disease. As a result of his early warning, millions of lives around the world were saved.
But sadly, while treating SARS infected patients, Dr. Urbani became infected with the virus himself, and later on died due to its complications. He also played an important role in tracking the epidemiology of the hookworm.
The desires to look after suffering people lead him to choose medicine and specialize in infectious diseases. After graduation, he initially worked as a GP, then he movedl to the department of infectious diseases at the Hospital of Macerata, where he remained for ten years.
In the meantime he married Giuliana Chiorrini. Together they would have three sons: Tommaso, Luca and Maddalena. These were the years when Carlo began to feel more strongly the call to assist the forgotten sick, neglected by wealthy countries, the power game, by the interests of pharmaceutical companies.
With other medical organizations, from 1988-89, he organized visits to Central Africa, to bring help to inaccessible villages. Once again his parish community accompanied and supported him with an aid bridge to Mauritania.
In 1997, Carlo joined Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Switzerland, and worked in Cambodia. MSF had contacted WHO, which was looking for an infectious disease specialist with a background in parasites.
Carlo’s work led to innovative approaches in the control of Schistosoma mekongi, a parasitic flatworm causing intestinal schistosomiasis, transmitted only on the river Mekong.
If left untreated, this serious disease irreversibly damages the liver, causing fibrosis that eventually kills the patient. On the Mekong, Carlo noted rocks that were the natural habitat of tiny snails acting as intermediate hosts of the flatworm.
He developed a simple questionnaire for children, asking about rocks where they bathed, to identify schools where pupils needed regular treatment.
In January 2000, Carlo Urbani told the newspaper Avvenire: “My job is a consultant of the WHO Parasitic Diseases. In all international assemblies it is repeated that there is only one cause: poverty.
In Africa I came fresh from studying. And I was ‘frustrated’ to find that people are not dying of strange diseases: they were dying of diarrhea, respiratory problems. Diarrhea is still one of the five leading causes of death worldwide.
We don’t treat it with medicines which are impossible to find. One of the last challenges that MsF has welcomed is the participation in the global campaign for the access to essential medicines. And that’s where we have used the funds of the Nobel Prize”.