MPs fail to ban Lariam ‘zombie drug’ linked to psychosis in soldiers

British soldiers © Peter Nicholls
A defence committee report has fallen short of recommending a full ban on issuing the psychosis-linked, anti-malaria drug Lariam to British troops.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is facing hundreds of lawsuits by military veterans and personnel over the once-a-week treatment, which is largely outlawed in the US military after it was linked to a massacre of Afghan civilians and referred to by one US Army expert as a “zombie drug.”

While MPs found that there was no justification or need to continue issuing the drug to service personnel, they stated it could be used in exceptional circumstances.

Those conditions are an inability by an individual to tolerate the drug; following a face-to-face risk assessment; and “only after the patient has been made aware of the alternatives and has been given the choice between Lariam and another suitable anti-malarial drug.”

Although strongly worded, these findings appear to signify little change in policy, as recent military medical guidelines say virtually the same thing.  

However, the MoD was also accused of handing out the drug without following the existing recommendations.

Committee chair Julian Lewis told the Guardian “it seems quite clear” that the military was “unable to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for prescribing the drug in all instances.”

He also pointed to widespread anecdotal evidence that, knowing the risks associated with the drug, military personnel “discard their Lariam rather than risk its potentially dangerous side effects.”

Recent figures suggest up to 1,000 soldiers have sought psychiatric help after taking the drug and one military law firm claims to have been contacted by up to 470 people affected by the psychosis-linked pill during military service.

Philippa Tuckman of Hilary Meredith Solicitors told the Independent on Tuesday she had “personally heard so many service personnel tell me that they were not asked about their history, that they were not told about the potentially catastrophic side effects of the drug.”

Lariam has continued to be used despite evidence linking it 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.”

In 2012, Dr Remington Nevin, a US Army epidemiologist whose research found the drug, also known as Mefloquine, 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.”