Veterans returned to the U.S. after fighting in the jungles of Vietnam a half century ago, but hundreds of them may be dying from a silent bullet — a slow-killing parasite living in the men decades after the war, a new study revealed.
Liver flukes, parasites that infect a human when raw or undercooked fish is eaten, are being investigated as the cause of a rare bile duct cancer among veterans who served in the Vietnam War. It could take years for symptoms to show up, but when they do, the host is left with tremendous pain and given just a few months to live.
The Department of Veterans Affairs this spring commissioned a small pilot study to look into the link between liver flukes and the cancer. More than 20 percent of the 50 blood samples submitted to the study came back positive or bordering positive for liver fluke antibodies, said Sung-Tae Hong, the tropical medicine specialist who carried out the tests at Seoul National University in South Korea.
Gerry Wiggins, who served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969, agreed to take part in the study even though he didn’t have any symptoms. The 69-year-old said he has already lost friends to the disease. To his surprise, liver fluke antibodies were detected in him.
“I was in a state of shock,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be me.”