Background: In 1993 more than 1 million Swiss residents traveled to a tropical or subtropical country. Although most pre-travel advice is given by general practitioners, a number of travelers also seek advice from pharmacists. Little is known about the quantity and quality of travel advice given or the sources of information used by this group.

Methods: One-hundred and twenty randomly selected pharmacists from three Swiss cantons were first interviewed in a cross-sectional study on the telephone. All study participants subsequently received a pretested questionnaire, in which most of the questions asked on the phone were repeated, with additional questions regarding the sources of information used for travel advice and the cooperation of general practitioners. Included in both parts of the study were two scenarios of fictive travelers seeking health advice for destinations frequently visited by Swiss tourists (Thailand and Kenya).

Results: Of 136 pharmacists approached, all who said they sometimes gave travel advice, agreed to participate (88%). Fifty-six percent of them give travel advice regularly (mean 2–3 times per month). General knowledge on the main health hazards was good, but for treatment of travelers' diarrhea, only 59% spontaneously mentioned the need for increased fluid intake, whereas 100 % recommended antidiarrheal drugs. Protection from the sun was mentioned only by 10 % of the respondents, and only 8 % said that the traveler should seek advice from a medical doctor. Over 95% could name the three most important measures against mosquito bites, although up to 20% still recommend Vitamin B1 as well. On the telephone, only 19% (for Thailand) and 31% (for Kenya) gave accurate advice on malaria protection, and 13% (for Thailand) and 3% (for Kenya) could make correct recommendations about vaccination. However, more than 50% said that in practice they would consult documentation before giving any advice, with the Bulletin of the Federal Office of Health (BFOH) being the most commonly used source of information. In the questionnaire interview, where documentation was used, the accuracy of advice increased, especially for malaria protection (74% correct for Thailand and 93% for Kenya).

Conclusions: The overall knowledge of Swiss pharmacists on travel medicine issues is satisfactory. Specific questions need further attention, such as treatment of travelers' diarrhea, sun protection and advice on malaria prophylaxis and vaccinations. For the latter two, clients should also consult a medical doctor. Collaboration between doctors and pharmacists, and the consistency of the advice given, are important in improving compliance. Reliable information sources are available in pharmacies and are used.