Archive for March, 2010

Exotic Pursuits: Issues in Tropical Medicine

March 30, 2010

One of many tropical field clinics all over the world; a physician tending to a young boy with malaria-related fever in Malawi

The hot, sweltering climate of the countries around the equatorial world bounded by the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, are a breeding ground for variety of infections

The hot, sweltering climates of tropical countries are a breeding ground for a variety of infections that plague millions.  According to The World Health Organization, over 13 million deaths a year in developing countries are caused by a tropical disease, which accounts for nearly 45 percent of all deaths in the world.

Tropical diseases are challenging to deal with because they vary the gamut in terms of their causative agent: bacteria, virus, parasite–and each agent operates and infiltrates its host in a unique, adaptive way.

The pioneers of tropical medicine were the Brits. The original designation of certain diseases as being tropical can be dated back to the 1898 publication of Sir Patrick Manson’s Tropical Diseases: A Manual of the Diseases of Warm Climates.  Manson’s field guide identified twelve tropical infectious diseases, as well as a few other noninfectious diseases such as pellagra. The book was tailor made for British physicians who were Empire builders, working in the warmer climates of many of the British colonies. Since then, the list of tropical infections has expanded to include well over one hundred infections

Part of the persistence of tropical diseases depends of systemic and societal failures in a country’s health care system.  Good sanitation, hygiene, and vector-control methods, as well as a rise in the standard of living, were responsible for the virtual eradication of these diseases from North America and Europe. The fact that many of the diseases that are considered to be “tropical,” are found in poorer, developing countries is more a result of economics than it is of climate. There are several countries with high rates of “tropical” infections that do not have hot, sweltering climates associated with the tropics (for example, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan).

Over the next few weeks, I’ll take a look at some of the diseases in particular, their cultural and historical significance, and various other aspects of tropical medicine that come up in the news.