Veterans who survived bullets, bombs and booby traps a half century ago in Vietnam say they are now threatened by a one-inch worm that hid for decades inside their liver, and may have left them battling a rare cancer.
“There are no symptoms,” said Jerry Chiano, who showered in river water infested with the parasite while stationed in Vietnam in 1969, and who was diagnosed with bile-duct cancer three years ago. “Maybe now Vietnam veterans will get checked before it’s too late.”
Veteran advocates are demanding that a form of cancer of the bile duct associated with the parasitic worm be included among diseases presumed by the Department of Veterans Affairs to be connected to service in Vietnam. That would make Vietnam veterans diagnosed with the disease automatically eligible for disability benefits, which would go to a surviving spouse should they die of the disease.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) visited Chiano at his Valley Stream home Wednesday, where the Democratic senate minority leader called for a federal study examining potential links between the silent parasite and bile-duct cancer. Schumer said of 60 veterans-benefits claims based on the disease filed with the VA nationwide in 2015, almost all were rejected.
“There is a lot of evidence that bile-duct cancer, a very rare disease here in America ... was very much related to Jerry’s service risking his life for us in Vietnam,” Schumer said. “But the VA has denied Jerry’s benefit claims because the feds unfortunately and wrongly do not recognize bile-duct cancer as service related. They say there is not enough evidence.”
The VA medical center at Northport conducted a first-in-the-nation pilot study beginning in May, in which 50 Vietnam veterans were tested for signs that they had carried the parasite.
Alarm spread in the Vietnam veterans community, after Northport doctors began sharing test results with participants in June.
“I’m full blown with this stuff, and am going downhill,” said Jim Deljiorno, 68, of Smithtown, who has bile-duct cancer. Deljiorno said he was informed that he had been infected by the parasite, and that he has only months to live.
Deljiorno said he served with the 101st Airborne Division near the Laotian border of Vietnam. “We all drank the water from the rivers. It was hot, and you drank water where you could find it.”
The parasite, called liver fluke, is transmitted by the eggs of the mature worm, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The eggs mature inside freshwater snails, which release larvae that can be ingested directly or passed in the flesh of undercooked fish or crabs.
Once inside humans, the parasite can go undetected for years, creating inflammation in the bile duct. It is believed that this inflammation often results in cancerous tumors.
“Vietnam veterans began asking if they could be screened for this because they had friends who were also Vietnam veterans who died from this disease,” said Dr. George Psevdos, who organized the pilot study. “They had no knowledge that they were exposed to this parasite.”