What is Tropical Medicine?

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  • Written By: Lainie Petersen
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 14 August 2019
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Tropical medicine is a branch of medicine dedicated to the study, prevention, and treatment of medical conditions often found in tropical regions and developing countries. Specialists in the area of tropical medicine may focus their studies and work on the treatment of so-called tropical diseases such as malaria, cholera, and ebola. While these conditions may not necessarily be caused by tropical climates, as many were prevalent in countries with different climates prior to modernization, they remain a significant concern in the developing world. Practitioners of tropical medicine may work in the developing world or may practice in developed nations.

Within developing countries, children and adults regularly die or are disabled by conditions spread as the result of poor hygiene, inadequate plumbing systems and waste management, as well as a lack of access to health care and education. The spread of various bacteria, parasites, and viruses through contaminated water, for example, can result in chronic diarrhea, which can be fatal in children, the elderly, and those who are already experiencing compromised health. Some of these parasites and bacteria, such as T. gondii, can also have an adverse affect on the fetuses of infected pregnant women. Tropical medicine and disaster medicine can often overlap when natural or man-made disasters hit third-world countries, further straining health care resources.


Some practitioners of tropical medicine operate within industrialized nations. They are needed to address periodic outbreaks of tropical diseases in their home country, work in scientific research institutions, and may specialize in travel medicine. Travel medicine addresses the health concerns of travelers who may be exposed to unfamiliar diseases, parasites, and viruses during their journey. Doctors who specialize in travel medicine may be called upon to provide education and preventative care to travelers before departure and may need to treat travelers who become infected while away from home. As many physicians in developed nations may be unfamiliar with tropical diseases, a consultation with a tropical medicine specialist may be crucial in treating a patient.

There is some controversy over the use of the term tropical medicine. As tropical diseases can exist and spread in non-tropical climates and the failure to control or eradicate these diseases is often the result of a lack of financial and technology resources, as well as appropriate social policy. While temperature and humidity may exacerbate these conditions, climate isn't the only defining characteristic of tropical diseases. As a result, some now refer to tropical medicine as third-world medicine.


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