A 52-year-old female with no significant past medical history is seen for a routine annual examination and is scheduled for a colonoscopy due to her age being over 50 years. The colonoscopy was performed and an isolated single worm was found within the cecum (Images 1-2). The worm was removed with cold forceps and subsequently placed in paraffin and sectioned (Images 3-5).
The worm was identified as Trichuris trichiura. The common name for this organism is the whipworm. It belongs to the Nematode classification of parasites, which are commonly referred to as roundworms. Adults measure up to 5 cm in length and have a tapered or whip-like anterior end. The eggs measure 50 x 25 µm, and have brownish thick shells on stool smear. The eggs also have a barrel shape and distinctive protruding polar plugs at each end. These morphologic characteristics of the egg are diagnostic of Trichuris trichiura. The lack of a tissue migration phase and a relative lack of symptoms characterize whipworm infection, with only those with a heavy parasite burden becoming symptomatic. If these symptoms do arise, they are usually mild, ranging from loose stools with minimal blood loss and nocturnal stools, to iron deficiency anemia and vitamin deficiency. As parasite burden increases, however, symptoms can progress to dysentery, colitis, or rectal prolapse. Prolapse is more frequent in the Pediatric population, but has been described in adults as well.
Trichuris trichiura has one of the simplest of the Nematode life cycles. Eggs are unintentionally ingested, hatching in the small intestine by way of exploitation of signaling molecules from the intestinal microbiome. The larvae then burrow through the villi and continue maturing in the wall of the small intestine. They then return to the intestinal lumen, migrating to the cecum and subsequently into the large intestine, where they finish the process of maturation. Finally, the worm uses its anterior end to anchor into the bowel mucosa, where it feeds on tissue secretions and uses its posterior end for reproduction and laying eggs. Female worms can live from 1-5 years and can lay up to 20,000 eggs per day.
Whipworm infection is principally a problem in tropical Asia and, to a lesser degree, in Africa and South America. Children are most commonly infected, and can experience failure to thrive as well as cognitive and developmental defects. Transmission is by the fecal-oral route, explaining the large incidence of infection in children from developing countries, as they are far more likely to be in physical contact with soil and environmental contaminants, with subsequent placement of their fingers in their mouths. The fecal-oral route can also be facilitated by improper washing and cooking of fruits and vegetables, as well as overall poor hygiene, no matter what the geographical location. In the United States, whipworm infection is exceedingly rare. When it does happen, it is most commonly seen in the rural Southeast. Although it is rare, the incidence of infection is reported to be as high as 2.2 million individuals within the United States, with 1-2 billion cases worldwide.
Studies often reveal eosinophilia in nematode infections from ongoing tissue invasion. However, the lack of a tissue migration phase in Trichuris life cycles makes this a rare laboratory finding. Other studies such as anemia can give an indication to the presence of the worm. Characteristic egg morphology on stool smear remains the cheapest and easiest way to diagnose infection, but polymerase chain reaction using new sequencing techniques are now available in some laboratories to detect the presence of Trichuris with great sensitivity and specificity. The parasite burden can be quantified per gram of stool by the Kato-Katz technique. This procedure filters stool through mesh, with the filtered sample being placed within a template on a glass slide. The template is then removed and the remaining fecal material is removed with a piece of cellophane soaked in glycerol, leaving only eggs on the slide.
Discovery of T. trichiura in our patient was an unexpected finding, as our patient had no symptoms. Asymptomatic detection of T. trichiura has been described in the past, so this finding is not unique. The medication of choice is mebendazole, showing a cure rate of 40-75%. The drug works well by inhibiting glucose uptake from the gastrointestinal tract of the helminth. However, this drug is very expensive, and as a result is difficult to obtain. The patient is currently receiving an alternative drug called albendazole as outpatient therapy and will be switched to mebendazole as soon as resources become available should the need remain. The patient is following up with her primary care physician and is expected to make a full recovery.
- Donkor, Kwame; Lundberg, Scott;
https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/788570-overview. Trichuris trichiura (Whipworm) Infection (Trichuriasis).
- Sunkara T, Sharma SR, Ofosu A. Trichuris trichiura-An Unwelcome Surprise during Colonoscopy. Am J Trop Med Hyg. 2018 Sep;99(3):555-556. doi: 10.4269/ajtmh.18-0209. PubMed PMID: 30187847; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC6169157.
-Cory Gray, MD is a second year resident in anatomic and clinical pathology at the University of Chicago (NorthShore). His interests include hematopathology and molecular and genetic pathology, as well as medical microbiology.
-Erin McElvania, PhD, D(ABMM), is the Director of Clinical Microbiology NorthShore University Health System in Evanston, Illinois. Follow Dr. McElvania on twitter @E-McElvania.