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Whipple's Disease

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Whipple's Disease is referred to as a rare, systemic (whole body), malabsorption disease (as it interferes with the body's ability to absorb some nutrients), caused by bacteria.

The symptoms are related to the organ(s) or organ system(s) infected; but can include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Malnutrition
  • Anaemia
  • Headache
  • Fevers
  • Diarrhoea
  • Lethargy/Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Chest pain
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Chronic cough
  • Irregular Breakdown of carbohydrates and fats
  • Abdominal complaints (bloating, cramping)
  • Intestinal bleeding
  • Resistance to insulin
  • Low blood pressure (hypotension)
  • Broken bones
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Dementia
  • Skin pigmentation
  • Malfunctions of the immune system

Whipple's occurs most often among males, ages 40 - 60, and most often afflicts the small intestine where it causes lesions on the walls and thickening of the tissue. The villi - tiny finger-like protrusions on the walls that aid in the absorption of nutrients - are destroyed, creating the root cause of the symptomatic problems. This may result in low blood counts, low cholesterol, low Calcium, low iron, increased bleeding times, low protein, low magnesium, and low B12 levels.

Arthritic complaints and fever often occur several years before deeper intestinal symptoms become apparent. Diagnosis is often dependent on the recognition of the symptoms, prompting a biopsy of the small intestine.

Treated with antibiotics, Whipple's Disease (aka Tropheryma Whippelii), is often curable in one to three months, although antibiotic regimens may be scheduled for a 12 to 18 month period. Untreated, it is invariably fatal. The severity of symptoms may prompt the inclusion of fluid and electrolyte replacement therapies; iron, folate, vitamin D, calcium, and magnesium can help to compensate for the vitamins and minerals no longer properly absorbed.

First recognised in 1907 at Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, Maryland, USA), it had been known for some 85 years before it was cultured and identified. The phylogenetic relations of the bacterium, morphologic characteristics, and the unusual features of the disease were considered sufficient grounds for naming this particular bacillus Tropheryma Whippeli. This human pathogen (no other species is known to have become infected) is the only known reduced genome species within the Actinobacteria family.

The studies of these highly unusual bacteria have guided significantly the development of molecular diagnostic tools.

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