Let’s begin A Short History of Veterans’ Lung Disease with mention of a recent study in the May 2016 issue of Military Medicine, which revealed that the prevalence of chronic lung disease among the 760,000 veterans who served in Afghanistan or Iraq (often in both places) has increased sharply following the commencement of the so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT). These findings, says the South Texas Veterans Health Care System team that authored the study, “may suggest a link between deployment exposures and increased diagnoses of chronic lung disease” (in Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans).
Middle East lung hazards such as the ubiquitous dust and sand, burn pits and other unknown or unmeasured factors, combined with relatively high rates of smoking among veterans are all suspected of contributing to this uptick in veterans’ pulmonary illnesses. Many veterans continue to smoke after leaving these arid, contaminated combat zones, which exacerbates illnesses which often go undiagnosed for years.
Dr. Anthony Szema, an assistant professor at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine and adjunct professor at Stony Brook University in New York, is quoted in a Military Times article as saying, “Despite the fact we have been doing this research for a handful of years, no one knows about the incidence of lung disease in the military.” Szema and his colleagues call these deployment-related lung conditions that are found in thousands of troops and veterans “Iraq/Afghanistan War-Lung Injury,” a term that we will likely hear increasingly often in the near future.
20th Century Veterans’ Lung Disease History
The history of military service-related lung disease goes back at least as far as World War I, when European powers routinely lobbed chemical munitions into each other’s trenches. Those who survived such gas attacks were often scarred and had trouble breathing for the rest of their lives.
Among the many conditions connected with the use of agent orange in Vietnam, chronic respiratory disease was found to be “significantly associated” with respiratory illnesses in Army Chemical Corps personnel who handled agent orange, said a 2006 study published by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The study concluded that veterans who had sprayed agent orange were significantly more at risk for a raft of diseases, including chronic lung diseases.
Asbestos aboard Navy ships became an issue in the years following the Vietnam war as awareness of the hazardous nature of the material became widely known. Many service members exposed to asbestos suffer from COPD, in addition to other serious illnesses.
Gulf War Syndrome, the formerly mysterious catch-all term for ailments stemming from the First Gulf War in 1991, includes such ailments as chronic fatigue, headaches, skin and respiratory disorders, including different forms of chronic lung disease.
It is said that every generation has its war, and it seems that every war results in a group of veterans who suffer from lung disease. In fact, veterans are at much higher risk of developing chronic lung disease compared to the general population. Occupational lung disease can come from exposure to cigarette smoke, sand, dust, chemicals, airborne heavy metal and chemical particles from exploded munitions, aeroallergens found in desert regions and smoke from burn pits.
We’re thankful for all of our service men and women. The Lung Institute is here to help you better understand how veterans may develop a chronic lung disease and what’s being done to help veterans fight those lung diseases.
Statistics on Veterans’ Lung Disease
According to the Veteran’s Administration (VA), over 14 percent of veterans who are deployed to a combat zone develop lung disease. Consider these statistics:
Overall Statistics for Veterans and Lung Disease
- Veterans are 4 percent more likely to develop a chronic lung disease, such as COPD or emphysema, than civilians.
- Over 6 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan sought treatment for a pulmonary condition.
- Between 2005 and 2009, the VA tested 80 soldiers returning from combat for chronic bronchitis. Of those tested, 45 percent developed the disease, and 66 percent of those diagnosed had never smoked.
What’s being done to help veterans fight lung disease?
Veterans’ lung disease is an important topic to understand. Traditional medications like bronchodilators and corticosteroids work to manage lung disease symptoms. They can typically be used in combination with other therapies as well. Stem cell therapy works to promote healing from within the lungs, potentially addressing the disease at its source and improving lung function.
In fact, many people report feeling better after treatment, and some are able to reduce or stop using oxygen therapy under the care of their doctor. Most people notice small changes at first, such walking a little more and getting dressed without feeling out of breath. Over time, many people say that they can breathe easier and live a more active lifestyle again.
At the Lung Institute, we are grateful for the service of our military and armed forces, and we’re glad to provide an alternative treatment option for veterans and civilians with chronic lung diseases. If you or someone you love has COPD, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, pulmonary fibrosis or another chronic lung disease and would like more information about stem cell treatment options, contact us at (800) 729-3065.