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Whipple's Disease: Causes, Symptoms, Risk Factors, Diagnosis, Treatment

Jul 18, 2023

Whipple's Disease: Causes, Symptoms, Risk Factors, Diagnosis, Treatment

Whipple disease is an uncommon bacterial infection that typically affects the joints and digestive system. Whipple disease interferes with healthy digestion by affecting how food digests and how well your body absorbs nutrients like fats and carbohydrates.

Tropheryma whipplei (formerly known as T whippelii), a gram-positive bacterium, is most likely the cause behind the systemic illness known as Whipple’s disease. The disease also affects the central nervous system, and cardiovascular system, despite the initial descriptions of the sickness being a malabsorption syndrome with small intestinal involvement. 

Endocarditis with a culture-negative result is known to be mostly caused by T whipplei infection. Clinical experience with this condition is limited because fewer than 1000 known cases have been described.

Causes Of Whipple’s Disease

Whipple's illness is caused by the bacteria Tropheryma whipplei. The environment is filled with these bacteria, although infections are extremely uncommon. Scientists are still unsure of why some individuals contract the virus while others do not.

Researchers have discovered the bacteria in the stool and saliva of healthy individuals. These persons are more likely to possess the human leukocyte antigen B27 (HLA-B27) which is a protein. These people may have a higher risk of contracting Whipple's illness if they come into touch with Tropheryma whipplei bacteria.

Immune system problems are common in Whipple's disease patients. These problems make it more difficult for the body to fight infections.

Symptoms Of Whipple’s disease

The following are the signs and symptoms of Whipple disease which may be present in the patients:

  • Diarrhea
  • Cramps and pain in the stomach, which may get worse after eating
  • Loss of weight due to  inadequate nutrition absorption
  • Ankles, knees, and wrists are more prone to joint inflammation.
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Anemia
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Darkening of the skin in scarred areas and on sun-exposed skin
  • Discomfort in the chest
  • Difficulty in walking 
  • Problem with the eyes, such as poor eye control, are related to vision
  • Confusion
  • Loss of memory

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Risk Factors Of Whipple’s Disease

The likelihood of developing Whipple's disease is higher among older, non-Hispanic, white people.

Farmers may be more likely to develop the disease because the T. whipplei bacteria are known to live in the soil.

The transmission from person to person and through sewage is, however, also proven to occur. Additionally, places lacking adequate cleanliness and access to clean water usually have higher chances of Whipple’s disease occurrence.

As of the right moment, Whipple's disease has no known treatment. However, only a tiny fraction of those exposed to the bacterium go on to develop the disease.

Diagnosis Of Whipple’s Disease

These tests are generally performed as part of the diagnosis of Whipple disease:

  • Physical examination-  Usually, a physical examination by the doctor comes first. In order to diagnose this disease, he or she will search for indications such as symptoms. Your doctor could check for symptoms including stomach discomfort and skin browning, especially in areas of your body that are exposed to the sun.
  • Biopsy. Obtaining a tissue sample (biopsy), usually from the small intestine lining, is crucial for determining the diagnosis of Whipple's illness. An upper endoscopy is often used by your doctor to accomplish this. Through your mouth, throat, windpipe, stomach, and small intestine, a thin, flexible tube (scope) with a light and camera attached is used to do the process.
  • Your doctor can inspect your digestive tract through the scope and collect tissue samples.
  • Medical professionals take tissue samples from several locations in the small intestine during the operation. In a laboratory, a doctor uses a microscope to study this tissue. He or she especially searches for Tropheryma whipplei bacteria, as well as the presence of disease-causing bacteria and their sores (lesions). Your doctor may obtain a tissue sample from an enlarged lymph node or carry out additional tests if these tissue samples don't support the diagnosis.
  • In some circumstances, your physician could instruct you to ingest a capsule containing a tiny camera. Your doctor can view photos of your digestive tract taken by the camera.
  • In biopsy samples or spinal fluid samples, Tropheryma whipplei bacteria can be found using a DNA-based test called a polymerase chain reaction, which is accessible at some medical facilities.
  • A blood test. A complete blood count is one of the blood tests your doctor could request. Blood tests can identify a number of Whipple disease-related problems, most notably anemia, which is a decrease in the number of red blood cells, and low albumin levels, which are a protein found in the blood.

Treatment Of Whipple’s Disease

The first step in treatment is typically an aggressive course of antibiotics that includes 2-4 weeks of intravenous (IV) medication. You'll also probably take antibiotics every day for one to two years.

Tetracycline for a long time has been the drug of choice, but doctors discovered that many patients would relapse and have poor outcomes with subsequent therapies. Better outcomes were seen with penicillin or trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole (TMP-SMX).

If you are allergic to a specific antibiotic, let your doctor know right away because there are many other treatments they can try, such as:

  • Amoxicillin
  • Streptomycin
  • Antibiotics gentamicin, ampicillin, ceftriaxone, and sulfonamide
  • Trimethoprim erythromycin
  • Neomycin rifampin

Other therapy choices include:

  • Drinking the right amount of fluids
  • Utilizing iron supplements to help with anemia while taking the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) for at least 12 months.
  • Taking supplements of vitamin D, vitamin K, calcium, and magnesium
  • Maintaining a high-calorie diet to aid in the absorption of nutrients
  • Corticosteroids use to reduce inflammation
  • Using NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines) to treat pain, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)

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