VA studies Vietnam vets for exposure to cancer-causing parasite

VA studies Vietnam vets for exposure to cancer-causing parasite
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Gina Harkins is MOAA's Senior Digital Content Manager. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at: @ginaaharkins.

Servicemembers who fought in Vietnam could be at risk of developing cancer caused by a parasite they might've ingested decades ago through raw or undercooked fish while deployed to Southeast Asia. 

Test results from a study conducted this spring by the Department of Veterans affairs show Vietnam War veterans could be infected with a slow-killing parasite, The Associated Press reported. Twenty percent of the 50 veterans tested were positive or bordering positive for antibodies from tiny parasitic worms called liver flukes, according to the wire service. 

Liver flukes can cause cholangiocarcinoma, a bile-duct cancer.

Health officials posted a warning on the VA site that servicemembers who “ate raw or undercooked freshwater fish during their service in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam War veterans, might have been infected” by liver flukes. 

“However, currently VA is not aware of any studies that show that bile duct cancer occurs more often in U.S. Vietnam War Veterans than in other groups of people,” the warning states. 

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has asked the National Academy of Sciences to research the potential link between water-borne parasites and bile-duct cancer. He cited the case of Jerry Chiano, a Vietnam War veteran from New York. The Navy Seabee swam in local rivers and ate fish while serving in Vietnam. Chiano later developed bile-duct cancer, but the VA did not recognize the disease as service connected, according to Schumer's letter. 

Chiano died on Nov. 19. He was 68 years old.

“Veterans, like Jerry Chiano, shouldn't have to wage their own war to gather the scientific facts about bile duct cancer in order to receive earned benefits,” Schumer wrote four months before the Navy veteran's death. “…This research will prove critical as Americans are diagnosed and can more readily assess their likelihood of risk.” 

People who've ingested liver flukes sometimes don't show symptoms for decades. The parasites can mature to adulthood inside the human biliary duct system, according to the VA, and the irritation and scarring caused by liver fluke infections can lead to cancer.

As of last year, the VA had treated about 700 veterans with cholangiocarcinoma in the past 15 years, the AP reported. Most of those veterans didn't submit claims for benefits since they didn't know about the potential link to their time in service, according to the AP. 

“Of the claims submitted, [three] out of [four] have been rejected,” according to data obtained by the AP via Freedom of Information Act request. Curt Cashour, a VA spokesman, told the AP that the department is taking its study seriously, but added that “until further research, a recommendation cannot be made either way.”

The parasites that can lead to cancer are typically found in Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and rural areas of Korea and China, according to the VA. The Mayo Clinic lists symptoms of cholangiocarcinoma as jaundice, intensely itchy skin, fatigue, white-colored stools, abdominal pain, or unintended weight loss. 



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