Definition and Overview

Tropical medicine deals with the prevention, treatment, and management of diseases that are endemic or more common in tropical or subtropical parts of the world such as Africa and Asia. This field of medicine acknowledges the fact that certain factors, such as environment and genetics, play a huge role in the development and spread of certain diseases and that by disseminating timely information and taking preventive measures (such as vaccinations), the spread of the disease can be prevented.

Tropical regions differ from temperate areas because of the huge biodiversity of their flora and fauna, from which viruses or bacteria can eventually develop. The extensive presence of insects such as mosquitoes that can serve as vectors, as well as the severe symptoms that make these diseases life threatening, make tropical diseases a major healthcare concern around world.

Thus, aside from those living in tropical countries, tropical medicine consultation is also recommended for patients who are about to travel to the said countries and upon their arrival to ensure that they did not contract certain diseases that can put their health at risk and spread to their home country.

Healthcare providers specializing in tropical medicine typically have two to three years of additional training in the field and have experience and exposure to health care settings where tropical diseases are common and treated.

Tropical medicine is a broad specialty, in which health care teams provide diagnosis, treatment, and management of tropical diseases. They may also work in laboratories and contribute to research to find definitive cures. They are also responsible for containing the spread of certain diseases.

Who Should Undergo and Expected Results

A tropical medicine consultation is beneficial for:

  • Those who are planning to travel – people who wish to travel in areas well-known for tropical diseases (such as malaria or rabies) should visit their doctor to ensure they are fit to leave the country. In most cases, they are provided with immunization to protect them from contracting diseases while abroad.

  • Those who are coming back to their home country following an international trip – Not everyone who has arrived from a tropical country needs to consult a doctor. However, consultation should be sought if the person believes he’s been exposed to potential threats such as vector insects or if he’s showing symptoms, such as fever or diarrhea. Refugees also go through comprehensive medical screening to ensure they do not carry certain diseases.

  • People who are exposed to tropical diseases – Due to many factors such as ease of travel and climate change, tropical diseases are now seen in countries where they used to be very rare or even nonexistent. For this reason, a person who believes that he may be exposed to these tropical diseases that are spreading within his area may seek a consultation, more so if he is showing symptoms.

  • Those who have a very low immune system – The majority of tropical diseases are infectious and communicable. An example is tuberculosis, which still affects more than 9,000 people in the United States alone. People who have a strong immune system are more likely to cope with the symptoms and may recover faster from the disease than those whose immunity system is compromised.

How Does the Procedure Work?

Tropical medicine doctors often work in traveling clinics where tropical diseases are endemic or more common. However, many hospitals these days have their own tropical medicine department.

Tropical medicine specialists work on both pre- and post-care. The consultation process typically follows the steps listed below:

  1. A patient approaches a general doctor, who then issues a referral to a tropical medicine specialist or department.

  2. Prior to the visit, the patient will be required to answer a questionnaire pertaining to his travels, like places he plans to visit or those he had been to recently. The data will be forwarded to the tropical medicine specialist.

  3. The patient schedules a consultation with the tropical medicine doctor before or after the travel. In some cases, consultations are made mandatory by several countries. During the height of Ebola crisis, for example, travelers coming from countries where there was an epidemic were immediately isolated and tested if they showed symptoms such as fever, diarrhea, and muscle pains.

  4. During the consultation, the doctor will:

  • Provide appropriate vaccinations and properly educate the patient to further reduce exposure to risks.
  • Ask questions pertaining to the details of the patient’s travels, beginning with the details provided in the questionnaire or information sheet.
  • Request for additional exams to confirm the illness or rule out other types of diseases. It may take a few days before the results are released, which means interpretation may be reserved for succeeding appointments.
  • Depending on the results, the doctor can then proceed with the treatment and management of the disease.

Possible Risks and Complications

It may take a while before consultations can be scheduled, and this may be because not all health care facilities have a dedicated tropical medicine department or there are not enough health providers trained to diagnose, treat, and manage tropical diseases and infections. In some cases, the patient may have to travel to another health care facility, which is not only time-consuming but also exhausting and worrying for both the patient and their families.

Further, because tropical diseases can share symptoms with a lot of diseases, it may take a few consultations before the illness can be correctly diagnosed. This poses health risks as some diseases are virulent and infectious that delayed diagnosis and treatment can lead to serious consequences. It is, therefore, essential that health care facilities have a well-defined protocol on how to handle these types of diseases, whether they have their own tropical medicine department or not.

References:

  • Arguin P. Approach to the patient before and after travel. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 294.

  • Basnyat B, Ericsson CD. Travel medicine. In: Auerbach PS, ed. Wilderness Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Mosby Elsevier; 2011:chap 84.

  • Fairley JK, John CC. Health advice for children traveling internationally. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 168.

  • Kingdom of Saudi Arabia-Ministry of Health. Health Regulations: Meningococcal meningitis.

  • World Health Organization. Country list: Yellow fever vaccination requirements and recommendations

Share This Information: