1,000 British soldiers given psychiatric help after consuming ‘zombie drug’ – new figures
A Freedom of Information (FoI) request revealed the figure is much higher than previously thought, with 994 service personnel being admitted to mental health clinics or psychiatric hospitals since 2008.
The figures only go back to 2007, so the true number may be much higher, as Lariam, also known as mefloquine, has been in use for much longer.
The MoD has consistently defended the drug, which is one of several it issues to troops, amid concerns that Lariam is contributing to an Armed Forces mental health epidemic. This is despite growing pressure from senior military figures, campaigners and relatives of those affected.
The drug, banned by US Special Forces two years ago, and which the UK military avoids giving to pilots or divers, is still issued to UK troops.
Its use continues despite evidence linking the anti-malarial to the 2012 Panjwai Massacre, in which a US soldier slaughtered 17 Afghan civilians after taking the drug.
Sergeant Robert Bales has since been sentenced to life imprisonment.
In an internal report, Roche, the drug’s manufacturer, described the killings as an “adverse event.”
Roche themselves have conceded that the side effects can include “hallucinations, psychosis, suicide, suicidal thoughts and self-endangering behavior” and may induce “serious neuropsychiatric disorders.”
The figures come as it was revealed a retired British general, who took the drug during service, is currently in a secure psychiatric unit.
Major General Alastair Duncan commanded British troops in Bosnia. His wife, Ellen, told the Independent: “Like others, I believe that this is a scandal. If 1,000 troops have reported the effects then you can be sure there are others who have not. I know personally of several, and anecdotally of many more.
“The long-term effects of this will be more and more in evidence over the coming years.
She said the MoD was “staggeringly unprepared to deal with the fallout.”
In 2012, Dr Remington Nevin, a US Army epidemiologist whose research found the drug could be toxic to the brain, told the Daily Mail: “Mefloquine is a zombie drug. It's dangerous, and it should have been killed off years ago.”
He said Lariam was “probably the worst-suited drug for the military,” adding that its side effects closely matched the symptoms of combat stress.
Considering why the drug remains in use, one former general speculated that it was a matter of economics over welfare.
Former marine Major General Julian Thompson led 3 Commando Brigade during the Falklands War. He told the Independent: “I can only come to the conclusion that the MoD has a large supply of Lariam, and some ‘chairborne’ jobsworth in the MoD has decreed that as a cost-saving measure, the stocks are to be consumed before an alternative is purchased.”
Larium is significantly cheaper than comparable anti-malarials, such as Doxycycline and Malarone.
An MoD spokesperson 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 (Lariam) as part of the range of malaria prevention treatments recommended, which help us to protect our personnel from this disease.”
The Labour Party responded to the revelations by promising to fully address the impacts and use of Lariam if the party comes to power in the May general election.
Shadow Defense Secretary Vernon Coaker told Channel 4: “Given the growing evidence of the potential damage caused by this drug we are committed to immediately reviewing its use should we form the next government.”