In the past 15 years, 700 veterans were diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called cholangiocarcinoma. Common in Southeast Asia, this bile duct cancer is caused by parasites present in river fish, which is often consumed raw in Vietnamese cuisine.
In the US, except for the recent epidemic among Vietnam veterans, cholangiocarcinoma remains rare, most often seen in travelers coming from Asia.
Eating Vietnam River Fish Can Cause Cancer – Decades Later: VA Disability Benefits
During the Vietnam war, when US soldiers were encouraged to accept the local food offered by villagers. Brochures were even distributed advising them to enjoy all the exotic dishes available.
As a result, many servicemen ate fish containing the parasites on a regular basis. A fish paste that was very popular among them was in fact made of raw fish.
It is easy to get rid of the parasites, known as liver flukes, by taking a pill shortly after intake. But if no remedy is taken rapidly, they can live on inside the body, dormant for many years, without causing any symptoms. Bile duct cancer can manifest itself decades later, often killing patients within months.
Less than half of the veterans who have suffered from the condition have submitted benefit claims to the VA. 75% of those claims were rejected.
On the one hand, many veterans are unaware of the connection between the raw/undercooked river fish they ate during service in Vietnam, liver flukes, and cancer. On the other hand, the VA has had trouble both understanding and acknowledging the problem.
Veterans (and their widows!) Fight for Vietnam Service Related Cancer Benefits
“When [veterans] go to regional VA offices, [doctors] might not recognize it... Often, the veterans have to make the link,” an AP journalist investigating the case told NPR. In many cases, veterans have spent their last months of life fighting to obtain benefits from the VA.
In the majority of cases, it is left to widows to continue the fight. Typically, they have to go through several rounds of appeals and maybe wait as long as 10 years in order to succeed, if they are lucky.
Servicemen stationed in Vietnam would often run out of rations while on a mission in the depth of the jungle. On many occasions, they would fish for food, and cook whatever they caught as best they could, often not enough to kill the parasites.
Now, claims for benefits are being either approved or denied rather randomly. Regulations establish that it takes a 50/50 chance that a health problem is connected with service in order for veterans to be eligible for benefits.
While VA spokespeople and independent experts alike have already acknowledged that is the case, valid claims are routinely being denied.
VA Fails to Test for Cholangiocarcinoma: Caused by Vietnam River Fish
For veterans who have been diagnosed, one of the most pressing issues is the need for tests to detect the cancer at earlier stages. Because of the nature of the disease, unless someone is looking for it specifically, cholangiocarcinoma can only be diagnosed through symptoms at a very advanced stage.
If the VA tested all veterans who might have been exposed, many lives might be spared. If regional VA offices received information about the link between service in Southeast Asia and bile duct cancer, they might also be able to diagnose it earlier.
Veterans who served in the region and are suffering from bile duct cancer are, by law, entitled to receive benefits. Science has backed up the link with river fish consumption, and it is now too late for the VA to try to obscure the sun.
With more and more claims being filed every year, advocating for the recognition of this rampant problem can truly save lives.
IMAGE: Attribution: Alpha, Location: commons.wikimedia.org