Thousands of British soldiers are being put at increased risk of psychosis and suicide because the Ministry of Defence refuses to stop using a controversial anti-malarial drug that has just been banned by the US military, The Independent can reveal.
Mefloquine – better known as Lariam – has long been the subject of warnings over its effects on mental health and is now only used by a minority of people travelling abroad.
Amid mounting concerns about the dangers of the drug – which has been linked with a string of suicides and murders – the US military acted this month to ban its use among special forces. The decision came after it was linked to the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a US soldier.
Yet British soldiers are still being given Lariam – a drug described as a modern-day “Agent Orange” by doctors because of its toxicity.
Speaking to The Independent, a former senior medical officer accused the MoD of ignoring repeated warnings over the dangers of the drug. Lt-Col Ashley Croft, who served for more than 25 years in the Royal Army Medical Corps and is an expert on malaria, said: “For the past 12 years I was saying this is potentially a dangerous drug – most people can take it without problems but a few people will experience difficulties and of those a small number will become psychotic and because there are other alternatives that are safer and just as effective we should move to them but my words fell on deaf ears.”
Lt Col Ashcroft, who retired in April, accused the MoD of being in “denial mode”. He added: “The problem is that it can make people have psychotic thoughts and therefore act in an irrational manner and potentially a manner that is dangerous to themselves or their colleagues, or civilians.”
Doxycycline and malarone are safer drugs which are as effective in preventing malaria, according to the retired officer. “Really the only people that get it [Lariam] now are the poor old soldiers and they have no choice.”
Mefloquine is typically given to soldiers serving in sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Latin America and South-east Asia. Lt Col Croft estimates around 2,500 soldiers a year are given the drug.
Lariam was developed by the US Army in the 1970s, and approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1989. It became a popular drug for preventing and treating malaria, but recent years have seen it become superceded by newer antimalarial drugs, such as malarone.
While most NHS doctors now recommend that civilians travelling overseas take alternatives to Lariam with fewer side-effects, British service personnel are given little choice about whether to take the drug.
This is despite the US military banning Lariam on safety grounds. An order issued earlier this month by the US Special Forces Command states: “medical personnel will immediately cease the prescribing and use of mefloquine for malaria prophylaxis”. It adds: “Hallucinations and psychotic behaviour can occur and continue for months or years after mefloquine use; cases of suicidal ideation and suicide have been reported.”
The decision comes after an order in July from the FDA to force manufacturers to give the drug a “black box” label, its strongest warning. The FDA warned that some neurological and psychiatric side effects can last for months or years after people stop taking the drug.
Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, the US soldier who killed 16 Afghan civilians in March 2012, had taken Lariam while serving in Iraq.
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