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Doctor Who Identified Mysterious Illness Dies in Thailand - 2003-03-30

The World Health Organization doctor who first identified a mysterious flu-like illness, known as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), has died of the disease in a hospital in Thailand. Latest figures from WHO put the number of cases of SARS at 1,500. At least 55 people have died.

Carlo Urbani was based in Hanoi, Vietnam, when he contracted the disease in mid March from a dying American businessman. Dr. Urbani was 46-years-old, married and a father of three children. An expert in communicable diseases, he worked in public health programs in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

A World Health Organization spokesman in Geneva, Dick Thompson, says Dr. Urbani probably saved an unknown number of lives because of his early detection of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

"By identifying an important disease very early, by helping alert WHO, so surveillance was increased globally," he explained, " this led directly to many, many cases being identified all around the world before they went on to infect hospitals. So hospitals have been preserved in many countries because of his early alarm."

The disease which began in Asia has spread to about a dozen countries. China has reported the highest number of cases, about 800. Mr. Thompson says in most instances, the disease is spreading slowly.

In Hanoi, where Dr. Urbani became infected with the disease, he notes no new cases have been reported in the last four days. He says only Hong Kong and Toronto remain problematic because the number of cases in both places is still increasing.

Mr. Thompson says severe acute respiratory syndrome is not highly contagious. A person has to be in very close contact with a carrier of the virus to become ill. And of those who do get sick, he says around 90 percent survive.

"There is a group of about 10 percent who, generally they are over 40 and generally they have other chronic conditions, these people struggle with the disease," he said. "About four or five percent of them go on to require respirators. But the overall mortality is very low. It is only a four percent mortality rate. "

On Friday, Mr. Thompson says Hong Kong used a new test for the first time to identify people suspected of carrying the Corona virus, the virus which is believed to be the cause of this mysterious flu-like illness.

He says this new test will be very important in tracking the disease and identifying therapies. He says rapid advances are being made.