It has been decades since they returned home but many veterans still feel the impact of the Vietnam War. A new study revealed that a slow-killing parasite from the jungles of Southeast Asia could be responsible for a painful disease that afflicts many of them.
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs commissioned a small pilot study to investigate the link between liver flukes and a rare bile duct cancer.
The investigation was initiated after a report revealed that Veteran Affairs have seen hundreds of veterans who are suffering from cholangiocarcinoma in the past 15 years.
Cholangiocarcinoma is cancer that forms in the bile ducts, which connect the liver to the gallbladder and the small intestine and carry the digestive fluid bile.
Cholangiocarcinoma is an uncommon form of cancer that mostly affects older adults 50 years old and above. In areas of Southeast Asia, the condition is associated with liver fluke infection that can happen after ingestion of raw or undercooked fish.
In the study, tropical medicine specialist Sung-Tae Hong carried out a test on 50 blood samples taken from the veterans. He found that 20 percent of the samples were positive or near positive for liver fluke antibodies.
Liver flukes are rarely seen in Americans but they infect about 25 million people worldwide. The parasites are endemic in the rivers of Vietnam, where fightings occurred between 1955 and 1975.
Medicines can wipe out the worms when caught early on but they can thrive in their host if left untreated. Although the lethal parasites won't immediately make their host sick, the swelling and inflammation of the bile duct can eventually lead to cancer.
Itchy skin, weight loss, and jaundice are some of the symptoms that appear only in the final stages of the disease. The symptoms take decades to appear but when they do, the patients usually suffer from tremendous pain and are often left with just a few months to live.
"I dodged all those bullets, then get killed by a fish," war veteran Michael Baughman said in a 2016 interview.
Fish On Stick
War veterans said that they would go fishing when they run out of rations. They would throw a grenade in the water and scoop their catch off the river floor. They called their meal "fish on stick" and cooked their catch over a tiny, blue smokeless flame. This makeshift meal, though, was never really got done.