The Defence Select Committee is to begin an inquiry into the use of the anti-malarial drug Lariam after major concerns were raised about its safety.
Appointed by the House of Commons to examine Ministry of Defence (MoD) policy, the committee held its first evidence session this week entitled An acceptable risk? Use of Lariam for military personnel.
Lariam, or Mefloquine, is given to soldiers serving abroad but can cause serious mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.
Benefits Outweigh Risks
Lariam is prescribed weekly to members of the British armed forces who serve abroad in areas with a high risk of malaria.
Manufacturer Roche, widely quoted as saying “the benefits outweigh the risks”, will be questioned by the Defence Select Committee on research into the risks faced by British soldiers who use the drug.
Lariam was banned by the US military in 2013 following a high number of suicides among American soldiers, and even Roche themselves conceded that the drug “may induce potentially serious neuropsychiatric disorders”.
Following a Freedom of Information request, it was revealed that up to 1,000 British soldiers needed psychiatric treatment after taking Lariam. Last year, over 10% of British military personnel who were prescribed the drug needed medical treatment afterwards.
Out of Date Guidance?
At one time, most UK travellers to malaria zones around the world were prescribed Lariam more than any other anti-malarial drug, but times have changed. NHS doctors now choose alternatives with fewer side effects.
In fact, the serious side effects associated with Lariam prompted Conservative MP Johnny Mercer – a former army officer who served in Afghanistan – to call for an immediate ban on Lariam for British soldiers.
The MoD currently issue Lariam in accordance with guidance from Public Health England, who have so far remained silent on the issues surrounding the drug, saying that their guidance is not designed for "any specific occupational groups, including the military".
If the Defence Select Committee are holding Roche, the makers of Lariam, to account then maybe they should also question Public Health England to get their views on the dangers faced by our soldiers abroad who take the drug?
Dr Julian Lewis, Chair of the Defence Select Committee, wrote a letter to the MoD in September expressing concerns at the “deeply disturbing” side effects of the drug, saying that Lariam “does not command the universal support of members of our armed forces”. In response, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon simply said the MoD’s use of Lariam is under “continual review”.
I’ve been concerned for a long time over the use of Lariam among our armed forces, especially when its serious side effects are not taken seriously enough by those who prescribe the drug. I look forward to the outcome of the Defence Select Committee inquiry and hope that their findings will include proper reasons behind the MoD’s continued use of the drug or, better still, an immediate ban.
Zoe Sutton is a senior associate at Slater and Gordon in Manchester, specialising in military injury claims.
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