11 May 2015
British Soldiers’ Mental Health at Risk due to Anti-Malarial Drug
British soldiers are being put at risk of serious mental health issues because the Ministry of Defence continues to use Lariam, a controversial anti-malarial drug that the US military has banned.
Lariam, or Mefloquine to use its pharmaceutical name, has been the subject of warnings for a long time and is associated with depression, suicidal thoughts and various other mental health problems.
Described by American doctors as ‘the new Agent Orange’ because of its toxicity, Lariam was banned in 2013 by the US military after a significant number of suicides among American soldiers. In October of the same year, UK doctors were warned that “hallucinations, psychosis, suicide, suicidal thoughts and self-endangering behaviour have been reported”.
The new warning was given by Lariam manufacturer Roche who also warned that the drug “may induce potentially serious neuropsychiatric disorders”. Roche issued its first warning about Lariam and suicide risk more than a decade ago.
Almost 1,000 British Armed Forces personnel have required psychiatric treatment after taking Lariam, according to figures obtained from the Ministry of Defence following a Freedom of Information request. Despite these figures, the warning from the manufacturer and the ban in the USA, the MoD has rejected all appeals to stop giving Lariam to British soldiers posted in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South East Asia.
Lariam was once the malaria tablet of choice for UK travellers to these parts of the world but NHS doctors today advise that alternatives with fewer side effects are now chosen. The Royal College of General Practitioners said that they do not encourage the drug because of the severe side effects, with the chairperson admitting “I can’t remember the last time I prescribed Lariam.”
In 2014, 263 British servicemen and women needed medical treatment after taking Lariam. The MoD gave the drug to almost 2,000 Armed Forces personnel last year alone. Over the last seven years, this figure is an alarming 17,000.
Fewer civilian travellers are taking Lariam nowadays but sadly British service personnel are not given the same choice with the Ministry of Defence insisting on carrying on with its use. The former head of the British Army General Lord Dannatt has called on the MoD to “decide as a matter of urgency to no longer prescribe Lariam”.
The number of British Armed Forces personnel suffering due to Lariam is shocking and comes on the back of recent research concerning mental health referrals to British military charities. Figures released last month by Combat Stress revealed that referrals for post-traumatic stress disorder have increased by 26% in the last year.
It really is very alarming that the MoD continues to prescribe a drug with known psychiatric side effects that are well documented, particularly in the face of evidence showing a sharp increase in the numbers of personnel reporting psychological problems. It's very concerning that the MoD does not appear to take these issues seriously.
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