A former head of the British Army has called for an anti-malarial drug to be banned within UK forces in light of concerns it can cause suicide or psychosis, disclosing that one of his relatives has been affected by the medication.
Following revelations in The Independent that troops face dangerous side effects from mefloquine, a drug branded as Lariam which was recently banned by the US army, General Lord Richard Dannatt said: “The UK MoD should follow the US example and no longer prescribe Lariam. The risks are too high. There are enough other pressures on service people that could cause mental-health issues. We do not need a prescribed drug adding to the risk.”
The retired Chief of the General Staff said there are “equally effective” alternatives to the drug which the Ministry of Defence (MoD) should adopt.
He added: “I have personal experience of these side effects affecting a member of my family and have advised others against taking this drug.”
General Lord Dannatt’s concerns were echoed by members of the Commons Defence Select Committee last night. “Military personnel and their families will be deeply frightened by these reports. They rightly deserve high-quality anti-malarial drug treatment but they also deserve as a matter of utmost urgency that the MoD replace this medication,” said Labour MP Madeleine Moon.
“The MoD should ensure clear guidance is given to personnel when ceasing to use the medication and investigate any problems experienced by personnel while using it,” she added.
The Independent reported on Friday that British soldiers are being given the drug despite side effects so serious that the US military has effectively banned it.
Not only does the MoD continue to use it, but it has ignored years of repeated warnings over the dangers, according to senior officers. Since 1986, the Medicines and Health Products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) has received 2,234 reports of “adverse reactions” to the drug and British doctors are to be issued with new warnings over the side effects next week.
They will be reminded that the drug may induce serious neuropsychiatric disorders, with hallucinations, psychosis, suicide and self-endangering behaviour having been reported.
The aim is “to increase healthcare professional and patient awareness of possible neuropsychiatric side effects”, said an MHRA spokesperson. “Following a recent review of the evidence, action has been taken to strengthen the existing warnings and to introduce new prescriber and patient cards to highlight these risks,” they added.
In a statement, Air Marshall Paul Evans, the MoD’s Surgeon General, said: “I want to emphasise that mefloquine is a drug that is licensed in the UK by the Medicines and Health Products Regulatory Agency. This is based on the expert guidance of the Advisory Committee for Malaria Prevention of Public Health England.” He added: “The MoD will continue to follow the best advice as provided by Public Health England.”
But Philippa Tuckman, military injuries specialist and partner at Bolt Burdon Kemp solicitors, warned: “The MoD is apparently in a vulnerable position. If it did not properly investigate the risks of prescribing a drug that has already been linked to incidences of psychosis, suicide and even murder, it should face the consequences.”
The MoD claims that Lariam is only prescribed in certain circumstances and is not given to air crew or divers – who are deemed unfit for duty for three months if they take it.
Ms Tuckman said: “For the MoD to make a distinction between posts indicates two potentially serious failings. Firstly, that the risks and side effects were already understood, with concerns expressed but not acted upon, and secondly, that the MoD is undervaluing the potential dangers it represents among all personnel.”
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