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Whipple's Disease is a rare infection of the intestines, caused by the bacteria Tropheryma whipplei. The bacteria is common in the environment and it is not clear why it infects Whipple's patients and few others. although it is clear the bacteria causes the disease, it is not clear how it infects the intestines. The disease is far more common in men than in women.
However, once the bacteria is established, it affects the functioning of the intestines, making it difficult for patients to absorb nutrients from food. Patients constantly lose weight no matter what their diet or how much they eat. In addition, the disease can spread from the intestines and affect the functioning of other organs. If untreated, the patient will die from the disease.
Whipple's is also hard to diagnose. It's symptoms are common to many other diseases, and not all the classic symptoms of the disease are found in all patients. Although treatment is with antibiotics, short term therapy that would be effective against any other bacterial infection will only slow the progress of the disease, not eliminate it. The only sure way to confirm the disease is to take an intestinal biopsy, which will always show the disease if it is present.
Once diagnosed, Whipple's can be treated with most common antibiotics, even penicillin. However, to prevent relapse, the patient must take the antibiotics consistently for a period of at least one year, preferably two - well after symptoms disappear. Patients who stop antibiotic therapy after less than a year generally have a relapse rate of 40%.