I was very pleased to read in today’s news that an MP has called for an immediate ban on the anti-malaria drug Lariam, which has long been associated with severe mental health issues in military personnel.
Conservative MP, Johnny Mercer, a former army officer and Afghanistan veteran, is demanding that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) stop prescribing Lariam (also known as Mefloquine) to British soldiers. He says he has received dozens of letters from armed forces personnel who claim they have suffered mental health issues after taking the drug.
As I mentioned in a previous blog, almost 1,000 British Armed Forces personnel needed psychiatric treatment after taking Lariam, a drug that was banned by the US military in 2013.
What are the Side Effects?
Mr Mercer wants more research on the potential side effects of Lariam and has called for the MoD to immediately stop prescribing it until a proper study has been done.
He is being notified of two cases per week of armed forces personnel suffering health problems as a result of taking Lariam.
Soldiers have reported side effects from nightmares to serious mental health issues like anxiety, depression and paranoia.
A very sad story about a soldier suffering from severe depression was recalled in a BBC report. He claims that “the Mefloquine I was given by the Army as an anti-malarial has induced lasting psychotropic effects.”
The report also quotes another army private who said, "The tablets were basically given to us like any other piece of equipment, without any instructions or anything like that."
Alternatives to Lariam
There are perfectly acceptable alternatives to Lariam.
Where at one time Lariam was the most popular malaria drug prescribed by the NHS to UK travellers, doctors are now much more likely to prescribe an alternative antimalarial with fewer side effects.
When you consider that the drug has been denounced by The Royal College of General Practitioners, with its chairperson admitting “I can’t remember the last time I prescribed Lariam”, it does make you wonder about the MoD's persistence in prescribing the drug to British soldiers.
Why do the MoD Continue to Prescribe Lariam?
Soldiers serving overseas are given Lariam once a week as protection against malaria, with manufacturer Roche saying that “the benefits of Lariam outweigh the potential risk.”
The MoD says the drug’s continued use is “based on expert advice,” but warnings from malaria expert Dr Ashley Croft suggest that the MoD should perhaps think again. Dr Croft, who spent 27 years in the Royal Army Medical Corps, carried out two detailed pieces of research on Lariam and believes up to a third of people who take Lariam suffer significant side effects.
He told the BBC Today programme, “If anybody was to ask me now should they take Lariam I would say definitely not – under no circumstances should you take Lariam to prevent malaria given that there are safer options available that will not cause you to run the risk.”
With such a high profile expert such as Dr Croft warning against the use of Lariam, I do wonder why the MoD continues to prescribe a drug that has such dangerous side effects.
I do hope that cost issues aren’t playing a part in the MoD’s decision to persist with Lariam. The safety of our armed forces personnel is paramount and I would urge the MoD to listen to Dr Croft’s advice and prescribe safer alternatives as a matter of urgency. I also echo MP Johnny Mercer’s call for a full study into the effects of Lariam so that we understand the long-term effects of the drug on our soldiers and so the MoD know once and for all how dangerous this drug is, and hopefully ban its use like the American military did two years ago.
Zoe Sutton is a Senior Associate Personal Injury Solicitor specialising in Military Accident Claims at Slater and Gordon Lawyers UK.
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