Veterans who served in Vietnam are increasingly encountering a second life-threatening battle: bile duct cancer. The cancer has manifested in many veterans who ingested Opisthorchis Verrini, a parasite found in the waters of Vietnam, decades ago. As veteran Michael Baughman put it, “I dodged all those bullets, then get killed by a fish.”
Exposure to the Parasite When Bathing or Drinking River Water Leads to Bile Duct Cancer
The parasite, which can be found throughout Southeast Asia, is called a liver fluke. It is transmitted through the eggs of a worm. The eggs mature in freshwater snails and then release larvae into the water. Then, when the water is ingested, the parasite lives in the bile duct, ultimately provoking so much inflammation that cancerous tumors can develop.
While many people ingest the parasite through raw or undercooked fish, Vietnam veterans likely came into contact with the it when bathing or drinking the river water, which was often their only respite from the extreme heat.
Bile duct cancer affects the entire biliary duct system, and can take decades to develop after the initial ingestion of the parasite. There are no visible indicators between the point of ingestion and the development of bile duct cancer, however, once bile duct cancer develops, it is accompanied by symptoms such as jaundice, abdominal pain, nausea, and unexplained weight loss.
VA Evades Responsibility
The Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ (“VA”) response to this issue has been deeply disappointing. It has: 1) denied the severity of the issue; 2) made it nearly impossible for veterans with bile duct cancer to claim benefits; and 3) failed to provide regular bile duct testing at its health centers.
VA Denies Severity of Bile Duct Cancer Issue
Head of post-deployment health services at the VA, Ralph Erickson, has stated that the rise in the number of bile duct cancer cases has been insignificant, directly contradicting the fact that, between 2003 and 2016, the number of bile duct cancer-related benefit claims increased sixfold.
VA Stymies Veterans Seeking Disability Benefits
Despite the pleas of advocates such as Senator Chuck Schumer and Dr. Banchob Sripa, a leading expert on bile duct cancer who insists that exposure in Vietnam is the “only way” to explain the rise in veterans with the disease, the VA insists that it 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.” Consequently, it maintains that it should be up to the veterans to prove service connection before they can be eligible for benefits. Of course, since no symptoms develop until decades after ingestion of the parasite, it is nearly impossible to show service connection, making the chances of actually receiving benefits miniscule.
In fact, records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request reveal that Vietnam veterans with bile duct cancer very rarely get the benefits they deserve. While between 2001 and 2016 the VA medical system encountered 700 veterans with bile duct cancer, less than half of them went on to apply for benefits, likely because they didn’t know about the possible service connection. Of the small number of veterans who did apply for benefits, three out of four were rejected. That 75% was left with two tragic options: 1) spend their final days fighting the VA; or 2) leave their loved ones without the benefits they deserve.
VA Fails to Provide Regular Bile Duct Testing
George Washington University’s Jeff Bethony, a liver fluke expert, insists that becoming aware of the parasite early is key to effective treatment, and that the VA should absolutely provide testing. Regular testing could help saves the lives of veterans such as Jim Delijiorno, a Vietnam veteran who didn’t become aware of his ingestion of the parasite until he had only months to live. However, the VA maintains that it is unrealistic for them to provide regular screenings.
Steps You Need to Take
If you are a veteran and have served in Southeast Asia, there are two steps you absolutely must take: 1) insist that your doctor screen you for the parasite and for bile duct cancer; and 2) if you screen positive, hire an experienced Veterans’ Law attorney right away. It is very likely that you are eligible for benefits, but, as described above, veterans are often put through the wringer when attempting to apply on their own. Having an attorney on your side will allow you to get the veterans' benefits you deserve before it is too late.
With 20 years of experience working with veterans, we can assure you that we will do everything possible to keep the VA from sidestepping their responsibility to you and your family. Contact us today at (877) 629-1712 or online.