UK

Call for Army to stop using malaria drug mefloquine

  • 17 August 2015
  • From the section UK
Media captionSome soldiers say their mental health has suffered after taking the anti-malaria drug, Mefloquine.

A call has been made for an immediate ban on a controversial anti-malaria drug given to British soldiers.

The side-effects of mefloquine, or Lariam, have been linked to severe depression and other mental illnesses.

Conservative MP Johnny Mercer says he has received dozens of letters from service personnel claiming they have become affected since taking it.

The MoD said mefloquine's use was based on expert advice, and it was widely used by civilians and military.

Mefloquine is a once-a-week anti-malarial tablet for soldiers serving overseas.

'Proper study'

Mr Mercer, a former army officer and Afghanistan veteran, wants the government to stop prescribing it until further research has been carried out.

He said: "I've had a letter about once or twice a week from not only constituents but people all over the UK who have suffered or know someone who has suffered, they believe, as a result of taking Lariam.

"I just think we need to halt putting this drug out there for our guys and girls to use it until a proper study has been done, so that we know and more importantly our soldiers and their families know that this is a good defence against malaria and they can feel comfortable taking it."

Image caption MP Johnny Mercer wants more research into mefloquine

A document from a senior military medic seen by BBC Radio 4's Today programme said that given the mounting evidence, it would be more than reasonable for the government to prescribe an alternative until it was clear that mefloquine was safe.

And Dr Ashley Croft, who served in the Royal Army Medical Corps for 27 years, has carried out two detailed pieces of research on mefloquine and believes around a third of those who take it suffer significant side-effects.

He said: "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."

'Devastating effect'

One senior British army officer, who wished to remain anonymous, told the BBC he was suffering as a result of taking the medication.

"Short-term, mefloquine robs you of sleep and proper rest and goes on to affect your ability to reason and to remain objective. That's particularly important for servicemen on operations or when working in life-threatening situations.

"Longer-term, the effects manifested into clinical depression - something that is entirely new for me and which has a broad and devastating effect, especially on my family.

"I believe firmly that the mefloquine I was given by the Army as an anti-malarial has induced lasting psychotropic effects, as I have never been affected by anything like this before.

"As a once-proud officer and committed family man, I am now left struggling with depression, which is such a pervasive condition".


Antimalarial drugs

There are a number of different types of tablets that protect against malaria.

Mefloquine, or Larium, is one example.

Others include doxycycline (Vibramycin-D) and atovaquone plus proguanil.

Any medicine can have side effects and you may need to take a short trial course of tablets before you travel to check this.

Ask your doctor, nurse or pharmacist providing travel health services which type of tablets you and your family need.


Dan was an army private who served two tours in Afghanistan.

Soon after taking the drug he began having nightmares that were so terrifying he thought he was going mad.

He is still having bad dreams and feeling anxious and paranoid three years later.

He said: "The tablets were basically given to us like any other piece of equipment without any instructions or anything like that."

'Benefits outweigh risk'

Two years ago, the US's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave mefloquine its strongest "black box safety warning" to highlight potential neurological and psychiatric side-effects.

But Dr Ron Behrens, a consultant advisor on tropical medicine to the Ministry of Defence, believes this was due to public anxiety rather than scientific evidence.

Dr Behrens, of the London School of Tropical Medicine, said: "It is my view that some of the policy decisions are based on litigation and public concerns above the science, particularly in America."

Manufacturer Roche said: "A recent regular safety assessment conducted by EU health authorities reinforced previous guidance that the benefits of Lariam outweigh the potential risk of the treatment."

'Protect personnel'

Mefloquine was banned from being given to US Special Forces in 2013, but in the UK it remains the drug of choice for military personnel in malarial areas. It is backed by Public Health England.

The MoD has a stockpile of more than 11,500 packs of the drug, according to a parliamentary question and answer.

There are those who believe that, if it were banned, sourcing an alternative would leave the military footing a hefty bill so there is an economic argument for continuing to use it.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "All our medical advice is based on the current guidelines set out by Public Health England.

"Based on this expert advice, the MoD continues to prescribe mefloquine as part of the range of recommended malaria prevention treatments which help protect personnel from this life-threatening disease.

"Mefloquine is used by civilians and military personnel throughout the world and we only ever prescribe it after an individual risk assessment."


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