Hundreds of veterans from the Vietnam War may be slowly dying from a parasite picked up during their time in the Southeast Asian country.
A new study shows that more than 20 percent of Vietnam veterans’ blood samples — out of a total of 50 — came back with antibodies for liver flukes, which can cause tremendous pain and may lead to bile duct cancer, but only decades after infection, the Associated Press reports.
Based on the way this specific kind of parasite works, veterans may not realize they’re infected until the symptoms start to appear. By then, however, it’s almost too late, as the infection is already at an advanced stage.
Sung-Tae Hong, who carried out the study at Seoul National University in South Korea on behalf of the Department of Veterans Affairs, said he was shocked at the results.
“It was surprising,” Hong said.
But Hong cautioned that the results are still preliminary, and the study is ongoing.
One of the participants of the study, Gerry Wiggins, tested positive and subsequently scheduled more tests. Doctors then found two cysts on his bile duct which had the potential to turn cancerous. Those were removed.
Infection by liver flukes can occur through ingestion of raw or undercooked fish. The parasites then slowly cause inflammation of the bile duct and eventually lead to weight loss and itchy skin, among other symptoms in the final stages of infection.
“We are taking this seriously,” Curt Cashour, a VA spokesman, told the AP. “But until further research, a recommendation cannot be made either way.”
The AP previously noted the possible link between bile duct cancer and live flukes in a 2016 story. Data indicates that more than 700 veterans with that specific type of cancer have moved through the VA system. Since the link between the parasites and the cancer has been tenuous, three out of four of benefits claims submitted by veterans have been rejected. Out of the 700 veterans, less than half even submitted claims in the first place.
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