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Study: Parasite May Be Killing US Soldiers Who Fought in Vietnam

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Fifty years after serving in the United States military, hundreds of Americans have a reason to believe they may be dying from a silent killer.

Test results show some of the men may have been infected by a parasite while fighting in Southeast Asia.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) ordered a small study of military veterans. The department wanted to investigate a possible link between a rare form of bile duct cancer and parasitic worms called liver fluke.

The small organisms can enter the body when someone eats raw or uncooked fish. Many years can pass before signs of infection appear. By then, those who have been infected are often in severe pain, and have just a few months to live.

Sung-Tae Hong, an expert on tropical medicine, carried out tests on 50 blood samples at Seoul National University in South Korea. He found that more than 20 percent showed possible infection with the parasitic worms. But he said more research must be done.

Christopher Goodman is a spokesman for the Northport VA Medical Center in New York. He said the center collected the blood samples and sent them to the South Korean laboratory. He said everyone whose blood showed signs of possibly being infected was notified.

Gerry Wiggins served in the U.S. military, and was based in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. He says some of his friends have died of bile duct disease. He was among those whose blood was found to be infected.

“I was in a state of shock,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be me.”

Wiggins, now age 69, lives in Port Jefferson Station, New York. He did not have any signs of the infection when he agreed to take part in the study. He hoped giving his blood to be studied would help save lives.

After Wiggins was told his blood was possibly infected, he immediately had more tests. Doctors discovered he had two cysts on his bile duct. These cysts can sometimes develop into cancer. They have since been removed. He says he feels healthy.

Liver fluke infect an estimated 25 million people worldwide. But they are rarely found in Americans. Many of the rivers of Vietnam were home to the parasites. People who are infected by them can be cured with simple medicines if the infection is found early. But if untreated the parasites can live in the body for many years, without causing health problems. But over time, swelling and inflammation of the bile duct can lead to cancer.

Jaundice, dry itchy skin, weight loss and other signs appear only when the disease is in its final stages.

American in Vietnam 1966
American in Vietnam 1966

The blood study began after the Associated Press (AP) reported on the problem last year. The AP found that the VA has treated about 700 veterans with the rare cancer over the past 15 years. But fewer than half of them had asked for financial assistance which veterans can receive if they are sick or disabled because of their military service. Experts say that is because many of them did not know there was a link between their condition and their time in Vietnam.

Last year, the government published a warning on its website. It said that veterans who ate raw or uncooked freshwater fish while in Vietnam might be at risk. But it stopped short of urging veterans to get tested, saying there was currently no evidence they had higher rates of infection than the general population.

Curt Cashour is a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs. He says his agency is “taking this seriously. But until further research, a recommendation cannot be made either way.”

I’m Dorothy Gundy.

Margie Mason and Robin McDowell reported this story for the Associated Press. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted the report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

parasite – n. an animal or plant that lives in or on another animal or plant and gets food or protection from it

bile duct – n. passages in the body that carry bile, or waste, from the liver and gallbladder through the pancreas to the duodenum, which is a part of the small intestine

sample – n. a small amount of something that gives you information about the thing it was taken from

cyst – n. a growth filled with liquid that forms in or on your body

swell – v. to become larger than normal

inflammation – v. a condition in which a part of your body becomes red, swollen, and painful

jaundiced – adj. having a disease that causes your skin to turn yellow; affected with jaundice

itchy – adj. feeling or having an itch

stage – n. a particular point or period in the growth or development of something

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