Three Long Island congressional representatives are demanding the Department of Veterans Affairs study the prevalence of the cancer-causing liver fluke among Vietnam veterans, to determine whether wartime exposure to the parasite should be considered a service-related benefit.
Reps. Andrew Garbarino (R-Bayport), Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) on Tuesday introduced the Vietnam Veterans Liver Fluke Cancer Study Act, which requires the VA, in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control, to study the link between the waterborne parasite frequently found in Southeast Asia and veterans.
Several Long Island Vietnam veterans say they were exposed to liver fluke and later developed bile duct cancer.
"After putting their lives on the line to defend our freedom, we owe it to our men and women in uniform to provide them with the proper support and access to the very best health care," Garbarino said in a statement.
In a 2017 Northport VA study, nearly half of the 50 area Vietnam combat veterans who met the inclusion criteria of having eaten undercooked freshwater fish while serving in Southeast Asia, harbored infestations of the parasite, which can lay dormant for decades.
The study was launched after Vietnam veteran Jerry Chiano of Valley Stream was diagnosed with bile-duct cancer in 2013 and died in 2017.
The Department of Veterans Affairs dismissed the study's results, arguing it lacked a control group and saying veterans may have been exposed to parasitic worms other than liver fluke.
While the agency has agreed to include an examination of the parasite in a broader study of Vietnam-related illnesses, Suozzi says legislation is needed because the larger review has been delayed multiple times, most recently because of the pandemic.
"The goal is to alleviate the worry of veterans, and, if it turns out … that the problem is what we think it is, that they get treatment," Suozzi said.
The VA, which has denied most claims related to liver fluke exposure, did not respond to requests for comment about the bill.
Steve Bonom, president of Vietnam Veterans of America's Nassau County chapter, said the study is critical.
"Almost every veteran that was in Vietnam ingested the water," he said. "And 50 years later, this parasite has come to life and is affecting the men."
Liver flukes are parasitic worms that spend an early part of their life cycle in freshwater snails inhabiting rivers in parts of Asia. Worm larvae are then released from the snail and the larvae burrow into the flesh of fish and can infest the bile ducts of humans who eat the fish. The adult worm is believed to release an irritant that can lead to cancerous lesions in the bile duct decades after the parasitic infestation has died out.
"It is our responsibility as a nation to develop a plan, secure funding to test all veterans whose service exposed them to liver fluke, and if necessary, provide appropriate care," Zeldin said in a statement.