A Brief History of Travel Medicine

How the field developed and why it’s important to consult a specialist.

Travel medicine didn’t really exist as a specialized field until about 20 years ago. Many European countries had institutes of tropical medicine—a legacy of colonialism—but they focused on disease in indigenous populations. “No one dealt with health issues related to travel, things like ‘I’m a diabetic flying from New York to Hong Kong; when do I take my insulin across the twelve time zones?’ ” says Bradley Connor, M.D., who runs Travel Health Services, a clinic in New York.

If anyone can be called the original specialist in the field, it’s Martin Wolfe, M.D., director of Traveler’s Medical Service, a health center in Washington, D.C. As a State Department consultant for more than 30 years, Wolfe was responsible for recommending vaccinations and prophylaxes for government personnel, including Henry Kissinger. “A specialist provides a lot that the average doctor doesn’t,” says Wolfe. “We can advise you on where diseases occur and when there’s an outbreak, and recommend doctors and hospitals overseas.”

By 1991 there were enough travel medicine practitioners to hold a conference in Atlanta. Today the International Society of Travel Medicine (ISTM) has about 2,500 members in 75 countries, and a wealth of information is available to travelers. Here are a few key resources:

  • Both the ISTM and the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene maintain lists of travel medicine clinics sorted by country and, within the United States, by state. istm.org; astmh.org.
  • Free membership to the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers comes with access to a directory of English-speaking doctors in 90 countries, most abiding by IAMAT’s set fees. iamat.org.
  • Membership in International SOS provides travelers access to more than 6,000 medical professionals operating in 70 countries. internationalsos.com.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization both offer extensive online guides to international travel and health. cdc.gov; who.int.
  • Experts from the CDC answer questions about the safety and efficacy of vaccines on the Immunization Action Coalition’s Web site. immunize.org.