Whipple's Disease

Professional Reference articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

A chronic, relapsing multisystem disease first described in 1907 by George Hoyt Whipple, an American pathologist.[1] He described the disease as an intestinal lipodystrophy characterised by:

  • Weight loss.
  • Chronic cough.
  • Fat accumulation in the intestine, mesenteric lymph nodes and stool.

It is now thought to be due to infection with actinomycete Tropheryma whipplei combined with defective cell-mediated immunity.[2] It is probably acquired as an enteric infection as this organism is commonly found in sewage effluent. It has also been detected in soil and is presumed to be ubiquitous.[3, 4]

Traditionally, Whipple's disease has presented a diagnostic challenge, both to clinicians and to pathologists.[5, 6]

Whipple's disease is an extremely rare condition. Incidence is estimated as less than 1 per 1,000,000 per annum.[2]

Risk factors[7, 8]

Incidence is increased in:

  • Middle-age and older individuals.
  • Males more than females.
  • Caucasian patients.
  • Family clusters (suggesting an immunogenetic component).
  • HLA-B27 antigen; HLA-DRB1*13 and DQB1*06 alleles.[9]
  • Sewage plant workers, farmers and agricultural workers.

Not everyone with infection develops symptoms, supporting the thought that a defect in cellular immune response may predispose certain individuals.[3] There may be many different forms of presentation with the common ones being:

  • Polyarthralgia - transient and episodic (often a prodromal symptom).
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms:
    • Abdominal pain.
    • Diarrhoea.
    • Anorexia and weight loss.
    • Distension.
    • Flatulence.
    • Steatorrhea (due to malabsorption).
    • Gastrointestinal bleeding.
  • Intermittent low-grade fever.
  • Chronic cough.
  • Hyperpigmentation (occurs in 50%).

There may also be:

  • Generalised lymphadenopathy.
  • Anaemia and, more rarely, clotting abnormalities.
  • Cardiac involvement - pericarditis, myocarditis, valve lesions.
  • Central nervous system (CNS) involvement in 10% - headache, confusion, dementia, ophthalmoplegia, myoclonus, oculomasticatory movements (convergent eye movements with simultaneous chewing movements), gait abnormalities, seizures, coma.
  • Ocular involvement - uveitis, vitritis, keratitis, retinitis, retinal haemorrhages.
  • Pulmonary involvement - pleural effusion, mediastinal widening (due to lymphadenopathy).
  • Protein-losing enteropathy with hypoalbuminaemia and oedema (due to protein loss).
  • Skin involvement - very rare; may be due to malnutrition or an immune reaction to T. whipplei leading to conditions including eczematous plaques, psoriasis and erythema nodosum.[10]

Diagnosis requires a high index of clinical suspicion:

  • Routine blood and malabsorption tests are nonspecific.
  • Imaging will confirm involvement of different organs but is not diagnostic.
  • Biopsy of affected tissue, usually the duodenum, shows infiltration of the lamina propria with periodic acid-Schiff stain (PAS)-positive macrophages with intracellular clumps of T. whipplei.
  • PCR of bacterial RNA (unique 16s rRNA sequence) is increasingly used in diagnosis and can be done from peripheral blood, CSF and other tissue samples.[13]
  • Antibiotics are the main treatment.[14] Expert microbiological advice will be needed. Prolonged treatment for 1-2 years is usually advised.
  • Repeat PCR at the end of treatment.
  • Insidious progression and fatal if untreated.
  • Locomotor and gastrointestinal symptoms may improve very rapidly with treatment but histological remission can take several years.
  • Follow up closely for signs of recurrence - there is relapse in about 40%.[7]

Did you find this information useful?

Original Author:
Dr Chloe Borton
Current Version:
Dr Colin Tidy
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Adrian Bonsall
Document ID:
846 (v23)
Last Checked:
24 July 2015
Next Review:
22 July 2020

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.