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Hepatitis C Is More Common In Vietnam Vets, But Nobody Is Sure Why

In this 1971 Army photo, a service member is vaccinated with a jet injection gun. The Army at the time called the gun "a fast, safe method for giving mass inoculations to troops."
U.S. Army Medical Department
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Some veterans say they contracted hepatitis from the "jet gun" that was used to immunize them in the Vietnam era, but researchers haven't proven that link.

Sarah Harris reports on an effort to get Vietnam vets checked and treated for Hepatitis C.

On a busy morning at the North Country Regional Blood Center in Plattsburgh, N.Y., several Vietnam veterans came to get tested for hepatitis C.

"A lot of my friends have been harping on me, and a lot of veterans in the local area have been getting this test done," said retired Air Force pilot Scott Johnson as he waited for his test.

When it was his turn, blood bank supervisor Christina Beck pulled out a tiny needle and drew just a little blood. Johnson looked away a little squeamish as the test was done. Twenty minutes later, his results come back negative.

Air Force veteran Scott Johnson was tested for hepatitis C at an upstate New York clinic.
Credit Katie Kearney
The Florida Channel
Air Force veteran Scott Johnson was tested for hepatitis C at an upstate New York clinic.

Johnson was fortunate. According to VA study and other research, Vietnam veterans are at least twice as likely to have hepatitis C.

"I always felt like hepatitis C was a little Pac-Man, just destroying your liver one bite at a time," said Vietnam vet Danny Kaifetz, who organized the clinic. When Kaifetz was diagnosed with hepatitis C a couple years ago, he was totally blindsided.

Kaifetz wanted other veterans to know they were at risk. So he starting organizing hepatitis C testing clinics and lobbying state and federal legislators for better testing and treatment.

The reasons that Vietnam vets are more likely to have hepatitis C are disputed. Kaifetz blames a device called the "jet gun injector" that the military used to vaccinate service members during the Vietnam era. It generated a burst of air pressure to force the vaccine under the skin.

"It was supposed to shoot the injection through your skin cells without piercing the skin with a needle," Kaifetz explained.

Even though the gun wasn't supposed to break the skin, a lot of veterans say it made them bleed. The gun usually wasn't sterilized between each use.

The jet gun injector has never been proven to spread hepatitis C, though the VA says it is scientifically possible. A 2005 VA study concluded that other factors were likely to put veterans at higher risk: intravenous drug use, blood transfusions, tattoos, or time in prison.

Joseph Boscarino - an epidemiologist, social psychologist, and Vietnam veteran himself - said the VA study is flawed. Boscarino led his own study comparing veterans outside the VA healthcare system with civilians their same age.

Vietnam veteran Danny Kaifetz organizes hepatitis C testing clinics and lobbies for better treatment.
Credit Katie Kearney
The Florida Channel
Vietnam veteran Danny Kaifetz organizes hepatitis C testing clinics and lobbies for better treatment.

"What we found," Boscarino said, "was that Vietnam veterans, contrary to urban legend, have actually lower rates of drug abuse than their cohorts that are non-veterans."

Boscarino also asked participants how they contracted hepatitis C. He gave a list of the usual transmission modes: drug use, occupational exposure, blood transfusions.

"A lot of the veterans said another reason," Boscarino said. "We asked them what that was, and they said the injection devices that were used during the Vietnam War."

Boscarino himself was immunized with the jet gun. As an epidemiologist, he said the gun's role in spreading hepatitis C is still an open question.

"I don't know if it can ever be proven at this point," Boscarino said. "It's too many years ago."

Hepatitis C is now curable, thanks to antiviral drugs. In 2015, Congress appropriated $1.5 billion that allowed the VA to pay for veterans to get those drugs. Since then, the VA has treated more than 100,000 veterans for hepatitis C, and it's tested 80 percent of veterans in its healthcare system.

Danny Kaifetz said the problem is that not all veterans use VA health care. He wants the agency to do more, and "test every Vietnam veteran for hepatitis C regardless of VA eligibility."

Kaifetz said taking care of Vietnam vets' health is a way to honor their service. And it starts with a single blood test.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

Copyright 2020 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit .

Based in upstate New York, Sarah Harris reports on military and veterans issues in the area around Fort Drum. She's worked in a variety of roles at North Country Public Radio, first covering the Champlain Valley in Vermont and New York, and now covering St. Lawrence County. Sarah's work has aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here & Now, and other programs. Her writing has been published in The American Prospect and Slate. She reported on cement production in Chanute, Kansas through the Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism and contributed to the award-winning NPR/Center for Public Integrity collaborative series " Poisoned Places." Sarah taught the first session of the Transom Story Workshop in fall 2011. She lives with her partner Joe, a cat named Louie, and soon, two llamas.