How veterans' pleas convinced me that 'suicide drug' should stop being prescribed to Armed Forces

The numbers don't lie: 994 service personnel have been admitted to psychiatric hospitals or treated at mental health clinics after taking Lariam since 2008

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The Independent Online

“Dear Johnny. I'm so sorry to have to write to you...” started another letter from an ex-colleague. “As a proud soldier and a committed family man, this is something entirely new to me, but we cannot go on prescribing something to our blokes that is clearly having a significant negative effect on their mental health. Please do what you can.”

This note struck a particular chord with me when I received it earlier this summer. It is one of dozens I received after my maiden speech as a newly elected member of parliament, where I committed myself to improving the plight of our Armed Forces veterans and current personnel. That number doubled in a single day today.

It is a difficult issue. Malaria is a killer disease – one that we must undoubtedly and aggressively target when our personnel are put at risk of contracting it. I am clear in my mind that what I have launched today is no anti-Lariam campaign. There are few instances where Lariam – or mefloquine, to give it its chemical name - is the best form of defence, no doubt. When deciding an anti-malarial prophylactic there are competing factors that must be taken into account: ease of access, effectiveness in that region of the world, likelihood to be taken correctly, and, yes, cost. That won’t be news to anyone.

The problem with Lariam, however, is that the incidences of psychotropic episodes in patients who have taken it are unusually high. Of 1,892 servicemen taking the drug in 2014, 263 have sought medical treatment for the side effects. 994 service personnel have been admitted to psychiatric hospitals or treated at mental health clinics after taking Lariam since 2008. A 2-Star General who commanded British forces in Bosnia now remains in a secure psychiatric unit after an episode last Christmas. Bearing this in mind, it must surely be time to establish whether there is a better defence against malaria for our service personnel – people who are usually due the protection of their government.

The truth is that the Lariam problem may be even bigger than we realise. Because of the stigma still surrounding mental health in this country at present, it’s reasonable to suggest that the psychological side effects of Lariam are underreported. Of the number of military personnel who have contacted me, those who are happy to share their story or to speak in the media is tiny. Few people openly want to associate themselves with mental issues.

 

Consider as well that a lot of our girls and guys do not even take their malaria prophylaxis treatment because they forget, or because they are aware of Lariam’s well-documented side effects and wish to avoid them, and we can assume that the percentage of people who experience severe adverse reactions could go higher still.

Ultimately, this debate it is about competing priorities. Few people are unaware that malaria is a deadly disease, one which it’s important to combat when our men and women are overseas. When Lariam initially became available, it may well have been the best defence against it, all things considered.

However, that situation has now changed. Lariam does not sit alone on the shelf of anti-malarial prophylaxis; it is merely the cheapest. There comes a time when we must reprioritise, and after what I’ve heard from my own constituents, I believe the time is now. Some of our finest are paying an unacceptably high price for protection.

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