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Veteran Infectious Diseases and Autoimmune Disorders

As a veteran, you have the right to make a disability claim to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to seek financial compensation for an injury or illness.

Serving your country in the military is an honorable act. It is one of the most patriotic things you can do as an American. But sometimes, your service results in a medical condition that causes you pain, suffering, and loss of income.

You might wonder whether autoimmune disorders or infectious diseases qualify for disability benefits. The VA does cover these medical issues as long as the eligibility criteria are met. The process for getting VA benefits for infectious diseases and autoimmune disorders is the same as for any other medical condition.

What Kind of Infectious Diseases and Autoimmune Disorders Do Veterans Face?

Infectious diseases come from exposure to germs, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses. They can spread directly from person to person or through vectors, such as insects or sick animals. These illnesses may also come from eating tainted food.

A range of infectious diseases may impact veterans, including:

  • Brucellosis
  • Campylobacter jejuni
  • Coxiella burnetii or Q fever
  • Malaria
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis
  • Nontyphoid Salmonella
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV
  • Shigella
  • Visceral leishmaniasis or black fever
  • West Nile virus

Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system attacks its own body. More than 100 conditions fall under this category of illness.

Those that affect veterans include:

  • Celiac disease
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Graves disease
  • Gulf War syndrome
  • Lupus
  • Psoriasis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Ulcerative colitis

More information about specific infectious diseases and autoimmune disorders is available through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, the agency responsible for protecting the public from infectious diseases and autoimmune disorders.

Why do Veterans Experience Infectious Diseases and Autoimmune Disorders?

Infectious diseases and autoimmune disorders can occur for a variety of reasons. For veterans, certain aspects of military service, such as environmental contaminants, have been directly linked to a variety of illnesses.

Environmental Contaminants

A study at the UT Southwestern Medical Center discovered that the cause of Gulf War syndrome was exposure to sarin, a nerve gas. It came from storage and production facilities in Iraq and contaminated the air during the bombings of these locations.

The Medical University of South Carolina discovered exposure to certain chemicals, including pyridostigmine bromide PYR and W-8 jet fuel, during the Gulf War likely led to various immune-related conditions in veterans.

The VA has linked Agent Orange, an herbicide used in the Vietnam War, to various medical conditions. Certain autoimmune disorders, like Graves disease, have been linked to Agent Orange and are eligible for VA disability.

Veterans’ infectious diseases and autoimmune disorders may also be due to general exposure to hazards that are part of the job. For example, many autoimmune disorders come from inorganic dust exposure. Insect bites or foodborne pathogens lead to some common infectious diseases.

Does PTSD Increase the Risk of an Autoimmune Disorder?

VA researchers have discovered a link between autoimmune disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They found that though PTSD is not the cause of autoimmune disorders, veterans with this mental health condition are more likely to develop an autoimmune disorder.

The connection between the two remains unknown. Researchers hypothesize it could be due to environmental factors, bad habits developed due to the onset of PTSD, or changes in the immune system or hormones due to the mental condition.

Can Gulf War Syndrome Increase the Risk of Other Autoimmune Disorders?

Gulf War syndrome is an autoimmune illness impacting veterans who served in the Middle Eastern conflict in the early 1990s. Studies have been ongoing because the condition was widely unknown and unexplained when it began emerging in soldiers.

After much research, experts now understand the cause and can better diagnose and treat it. Gulf War syndrome is considered part of the VA infectious diseases and autoimmune disorders for the purpose of benefits.

Gulf War syndrome doesn’t necessarily increase the chances of developing other autoimmune disorders, but it does include a range of autoimmune illnesses. For example, chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia are common symptoms of Gulf War syndrome.

Are Infectious Diseases and Autoimmune Disorders Eligible for VA Disability?

Infectious diseases and autoimmune disorders can be eligible for VA disability benefits. However, the VA does not determine eligibility based on the type of medical condition only. Many factors go into deciding if you can receive payments.

To be eligible for benefits, the VA requires that:

  • You must currently be sick or suffering from the condition when you apply.
  • You have qualifying service within the military, including inactive and active duty training or active duty service.
  • You have proof that your illness either started during your time in the military or was aggravated by your military service.

The VA has three additional conditions through which veterans can receive VA disability compensation:

  • Your illness began within one year of your departure from the military and is a chronic condition.
  • Your illness is the result of time spent as a prisoner of war (POW).
  • Your illness is the result of exposure to hazardous materials during your service.

What is a VA Infectious Diseases and Autoimmune Disorders Disability Rating?

To determine the benefits you will receive, the VA assigns you a disability rating. The rating is a percentage that indicates how much your life and health are impacted by the illness, so it depends on the type and severity of your condition. The VA uses the Veteran Affairs Schedule for Rating Disabilities (VASRD) to help determine ratings by condition.

The VA will also look at the documentation you provide, medical records, and other information received to assess your health. Your rating will be from 0 percent to 100 percent. If you have more than one health issue, you will receive a rating for each. The VA calculates all conditions to come up with an overall rating of up to 100 percent. Nobody can receive a rating of more than 100 percent.

doctor helping patient

The VA allows for additional benefits if you have particular circumstances. You may get more in your payments if you have dependents, including children, a spouse, or a parent, or if you have a disabled spouse. You also qualify if your disability is severe or you lost a limb.

One important note to remember is the VA evaluates every case on its own merits. The assessment occurs by loxwoking at your situation to determine a rating for your specific circumstances and the unique diseases you may have. However, the VASRD does include specific instructions for evaluating some infectious diseases, which could alter your rating.

When it comes to infectious diseases, if you are currently suffering from symptoms and the infection is active, you can receive a 100 percent disability rating.

If you are not experiencing an active disease, you will get a 0 percent rating, but the VA will consider any effects you may have from the illness to potentially increase the percentage. For example, if you have leprosy but the condition is no longer active, the VA will consider any residual effects, such as amputations or peripheral neuropathy.

Should I File a VA Disability Claim?

If you believe you have a qualifying medical condition, consider filing a claim with the VA. You can do this online, by mail, or in person at a VA office. The form required for mail and in-person applications is VA Form 21-526EZ.

You can provide evidence of your health condition, such as medical records, with your application, but this is not a requirement. However, including documentation can speed up the process.

As of 2022, determinations took an average of 105 days. The speed of your claim processing depends on the complexity of your situation. If you have multiple disabilities, it may take more time.

Once the VA makes a determination and assigns you a disability rating, you will receive the information by mail. You can file an appeal if you disagree with the decision concerning your VA infectious diseases and autoimmune disorders rating.

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