Whipple’s disease is a rare bacterial infection that usually affects the digestive system especially the small intestine but can also cause problems in other parts of your body, like the various joints, lungs, heart, eyes, and the overall immune system. In case of the gastro intestinal system, it interferes with the normal digestion process by either hindering or totally preventing the breakdown of certain foods, like fats and carbohydrates, and obstructing the body's ability to absorb nutrients. Apart from the G.I system, several cases also report this infection affecting the central nervous system including the brain, spinal cord, and the network of nerves that carry impulses and reflexes throughout the body.
Whipple’s disease was first recognized in 1907 by American physician, biomedical researcher and pathologist George Hoyt Whipple as a gastrointestinal disorder and hence the name of the disease. Although, it is a fatal infection, with proper treatment by antibiotic medications, one can hope to recover.
Although not much is known about this rare infection, yet several studies suggest that Whipple’s disease usually occurs due to the bacterium Tropheryma whipplei. This bacterium can either be a part of some people’s normal mix of bacteria or may enter the oral cavities from outside but there is no scientific evidence regarding where they come from or how they become contagious, i.e., spreading from one person to another. Some scientists believe that people with some genetic defect in their immune system may be more prone to the bacteria.
But studies resurface that this disease initially affects the mucosal lining of the small intestine, causing small sores or lesions within the intestinal walls, thereby gradually damaging the fine, hairlike projections (villi) that lines the small intestine, thus interfering in the digestion process.
Certain causative factors increase the risk the Whipple’s disease. This includes:
Age: It is more common in people within the age group of 40-60.
Gender: Men are more at risk of getting Whipple’s disease than their female counterpart.
Race: Whipple’s disease is usually diagnosed in people of Caucasian origin, mostly residing in Europe and North America.
Occupation: People involved in outdoor works like farming or those who have frequent contact with sewage and waste waters are more at risk of developing Whipple’s disease.
Whipple’s disease usually affects the G.I system and hence the initial signs and symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain
- Weight loss due to malabsorption of nutrients
Other common symptoms affecting other parts of the body include:
- Dark spots on your skin
- Inflammation of joints
- General debility
- Loss of muscle coordination
- Loss of memory
- Chest pain
- Vision defects
- Fever accompanied with cough
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Enlarged spleen
Whipple’s disease is an extremely fatal condition, which usually affects the digestive system, vision, nervous system and even the respiratory system. If the condition is not treated on time, it can eventually cause hindering of most bodily functions ultimately leading to death.
Diagnosis And Treatment
On noticing any of the above-mentioned signs and symptoms, do consult a doctor right away to analyze the condition and start the treatment at the earliest. The doctor usually does a thorough physical examination by checking the abdominal area for pain or tenderness, spots on the skin or hyperpigmentation etc, acknowledging the patients past travel history or mode of work to know from where the person might have got infected, followed by some diagnostics. These include:
- Blood Tests
- Upper G.I endoscopy
The available treatment options usually consist of a prescribed course of antibiotics including intravenous modes as well to treat and eliminate the bacteria and manage the symptoms. Other treatment procedure includes:
- Taking antimalarial medications for 12 to 18 months or as suggested by the doctor
- Consuming adequate quantity of fluids
- Taking dietary supplements including vitamin D, vitamin K, iron, calcium, and magnesium
- Following a high-calorie diet to facilitate nutrient absorption
- Taking corticosteroids and non-steroidal medications to provide relief from pain and inflammation