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Lawmakers join Vietnam vets in call for action on parasite disease

Rep Thomas Suozzi says ties between the veterans’ service and contracting liver fluke in country “appear to be more than coincidental.”

At least five Vietnam War combat veterans on Long Island who participated in a 50-person test for liver fluke have tested positive for the potentially fatal waterborne parasites, according to interviews and documentation provided by participants in the study. Four of the survey participants, all of them patients at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Northport, said they know of at least nine others who participated in the study who have tested positive. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Local members of Congress are pressing for answers about liver fluke, a river parasite that infected untold numbers of soldiers in Vietnam a half century ago, and which may be killing some of those veterans now.

Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) on Wednesday asked the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs to hold a hearing “on the links between our veterans’ military service, liver fluke infection and bile-duct cancer.”

“The ties between a veteran’s service and contracting the disease appear to be more than coincidental,” Suozzi wrote.

Concern among lawmakers gained momentum after the Department of Veterans Affairs last month said it tested 50 Vietnam combat veterans earlier this year for exposure to the parasite. Officials at the Northport VA Medical Center say they will not release the study until its findings can be peer-reviewed in early 2018.

In the past year, Vietnam veterans have voiced increasing concern about liver flukes, as some in their ranks have been diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, an aggressive cancer linked to the parasite that takes decades to develop, but often kills within months of first being observed.

Four participants in the study — conducted at the Northport VA — tested positive for the parasite, according to letters the agency sent them and they shared with Newsday. The four said they know of 10 other participants who tested positive, including one who has since died of cholangiocarcinoma.

“It started to be raised at meetings last year,” said James O’Donnell, a board member of the Suffolk County chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, a national advocacy group. “People are apparently coming down with it.”

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, wrote a letter to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, urging him to expedite the release of the study results. A spokesman for Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said Thursday the congressman intends to make a similar request.

The Schumer letter said that, because veterans don’t know the study’s results, they “live with the uncertainty around what their risk is for developing this terminal cancer.”

Some 3 million U.S. GIs served during the Vietnam War in areas of southeast and east Asia that are home to the parasite, which can be contracted by eating undercooked contaminated fish. Troops today continue to serve in regions within the range of the parasite, including South Korea.

Yet neither the VA nor the Department of Defense routinely screen for exposure to the asymptomatic flukes, which can survive in the liver for decades.

Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Gary Ross said the military does not test unless individuals show symptoms.

“While biliary liver flukes are indeed serious, DoD does not consider these parasites to be a significant threat or risk to force health,” Ross said in an email.

The VA says there is no approved test for past liver fluke exposure available in the United States. The Northport study samples were tested at Seoul National University in South Korea.

“As we’ve said several times, VA 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,” said Northport VA spokesman Christopher Goodman.

The pilot study was initiated after Jim Delgiorno, a Smithtown Vietnam veteran, was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma two years ago, after a CT scan at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.

Fellow Vietnam veteran John Ball said he spoke with Delgiorno a few weeks before the CT scan.

“He couldn’t understand why he was always exhausted,” said Ball, 73, of North Merrick. “A month later, he came to us and said, “I’ve been diagnosed with something called liver fluke. He had no idea what liver fluke was.”

Delgiorno, a truck driver who rode motorcycles and enjoyed surf casting, died Oct. 3. He was 69, and had cholangiocarcinoma, according to his wife, Elizabeth.

Ball is one of the four men who were advised by the VA that they had tested positive in the study.

Veterans advocates say the VA should move swiftly to raise awareness among soldiers who fought in Southeast Asia as long as 60 years ago because cancer can develop before pain, jaundice, or other symptoms are present.

The particular variety of liver fluke that causes cancer in humans hides in the bodies of fish-eating mammals. The feces of infected animals convey parasite eggs into freshwater lakes and streams.

The parasite grows inside aquatic snails, which shed parasite larva, according to a University of Michigan publication. The larva burrow into the flesh of several species of freshwater fish.

Humans who eat undercooked fish can acquire the parasite larvae, which mature in the bile ducts, and which can produce carcinogenic irritation. The parasite can be eliminated by administering antiparasitic drugs praziquantel or albendazole, according to the CDC.

Unlike some flukes that can be ingested from drinking water, clonorchis sinensis, the variety most closely associated with bile duct cancer is only transmitted through eating fish, according to Paul Brindley, a George Washington University parasitologist.

Rick Weidman, the Vietnam Veterans of America national director for government affairs, said his organization has been aware of liver fluke since 1981.

But he said veterans have never been able to prod military and veterans agencies into action.

“We’ve argued with the Veterans Health Administration for many years that they have to address this,” Weidman said. “It gets infuriating, because we’ve gone over this ground with them again and again.”

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