Will Rogers

by Will Rogers


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Everything you ever wanted to know about tropical diseases

What follows in this post is everything you ever wanted to know about tropical diseases. We’ll look at the most common questions around tropical diseases, why it’s important to know about it, the history of tropical diseases, some resources for you as a missionary, and finally, your role as a medical missionary related to tropical diseases and why it’s important for you to know about it. 

What is a tropical disease? 

Tropical diseases, generally speaking, are infectious diseases that thrive in hot, humid conditions. There are 17 neglected tropical diseases (sometimes referred to as ‘NTDs’) found in several countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. NTDs are especially common in tropical areas where people do not have access to clean water or safe ways to dispose of human waste.

What are some examples of tropical diseases? 

Examples of tropical diseases include malaria, cholera, Chagas disease, yellow fever, and dengue.

Why are they important to know about and understand? 

According to Baylor University College of Medicine, tropical diseases are diseases of poverty. They are the most common afflictions of the “bottom billion” the 1.3 billion people who live below the World Bank poverty level. Although tropical diseases are generally thought of as exclusively occurring in developing countries, new evidence indicates that the poor living in wealthy countries also are affected by tropical diseases. For instance, in the United States, tropical diseases such as Chagas disease, cysticercosis, dengue, toxocariasis, and West Nile virus infection are now widespread.

These infections are treatable and preventable. Tropical diseases encompass diseases that result from poverty, poor sanitation, infrastructure, and inadequate health resources. Lack of availability of clean water and food made with unhygienic practices add to the morbidity of these diseases. Many international relief efforts focus energy on these areas of community development in order to curb the spread of tropical diseases which are unnecessarily killing people.

What is the history of tropical disease?

Ancient physicians, including Greek physician Hippocrates and Roman medical writer Aulus Cornelius Celsus, wrote about malarial diseases, and modern molecular analyses of Egyptian mummies have suggested that malaria was present in ancient Egypt. 

After the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, Europeans discovered yellow fever, a disease present in tropical Africa and South America. Scientific interest in the identification and classification of tropical diseases emerged in the 19th century, when increasing numbers of Europeans and Americans, as a result of exploration and colonial expansion, were brought into contact with infectious diseases in tropical and subtropical climates.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many tropical diseases were found to be transmitted by vectors, such as mosquitoes, fleas, lice, snails, and other animals, and some diseases were linked to contaminated food or water. Eventually, the pathogens (disease-causing organisms) for many tropical diseases were identified; they include bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the significance of tropical diseases grew despite the fact that much had been learned about prevention. Because of population growth, increased migration, tourism, and the breakdown of public health systems, tropical diseases re-emerged and new strains, such as ebola broke out.

What is the role of the medical missionary?

What can you do after knowing about tropical diseases? There are several things you can do: 

  1. Understand tropical diseases: educate yourself and learn from those that have gone before you
  2. Care about tropical diseases:  you could choose to ignore tropical diseases since they are not present in most of the developed world
  3. Care about those in our world who live in poverty and do not have the appropriate resources to prevent and treat tropical diseases
  4. Provide compassionate, informed care: whether short term trip or long term service, tropical medicine is a great way to engage and serve across a wide swath of the globe

What are some resources for the medical missionary?

According to one of our frequent GMHC speakers, Dr. Samuel Palpant, one of the best resources for up-to-date information and a look at travel medicine and current epidemics: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel or www.who.int 

Dr. Palpant also recommends the following books and resources on tropical diseases and medicine:  

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  • Duellyn Pandis

    Duellyn Pandis

    The links are broken to: Dr. Palpant Tropical Medical Cases: Non-Surgical Dr. Douglas Collins Neglected Tropical Diseases Dr. Charles Mosler Treatment of Tropical Diseases that Make It to the United States
  • Thomas Cairns

    Thomas Cairns

    Thanks. These resources are fine for docs who don't plan to spend a long time in the tropics or only occasionally see a case in their practice in the USA. It would be good to list here also the various schools of Tropical Medicine where one can be much better trained and informed like Antwerp, Liverpool, London, etc. These take months but implies a long term commitment to missionary medicine.

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