Ministry of Defence defends use of malaria drug

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The surgeon general of the armed forces has defended the use of a controversial anti-malarial drug given to soldiers serving overseas.

Mefloquine (or Lariam) can have side effects, and has been linked to depression, anxiety and hallucinations.

Air Marshal Paul Evans said all anti-malarials caused side effects and individual risk assessments were carried out before prescribing.

But there have been calls for the government to reassess Lariam's safety.

Air Marshal Paul Evans, surgeon general of the UK defence medical services, told the BBC's Today programme that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was following national UK guidelines from Public Health England, which says there is no evidence the drug impairs function, although it advises pilots and divers not to take it.

He said there was no evidence that weapon-handling would be damaged by taking the drug.

He also said care was taken to assess service personnel before anti-malarial drugs were prescribed.

AM Evans explained: "We do individual risk assessments, we discuss with the individual where they are going in the world, the sort of operation they are undertaking and we look at their past medical history.

"The most appropriate anti-malarial is chosen... for that individual."

He said he recognised that mefloquine does have side effects, and that they could be serious, but he said all anti-malarial drugs caused side effects and mefloquine should not be singled out.

And he dismissed suggestions that the armed forces had a stockpile of mefloquine which they were forced to use up as "rubbish".

He said the drug helped protect people against malaria, a life-threatening disease.

Safety concerns

However, medical experts from the UK, US and Australia have said the evidence suggests Lariam should not be given to soldiers serving in environments where they need to be fully alert.

A growing number of service personnel also want Lariam to be withdrawn.

In the US, the drug is banned from use by Special Operational Forces because of its potential side-effects.

Dr Remington Nevin, a former US army doctor, from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, told the Today programme that the drug was "neurotoxic" and that there were better and safer options for the military to use, because of the risk of "permanent disability".

In a recent letter to Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, the defence select committee asked what the government was doing to reassess the safety of the drug in the light of recent concerns about its safety.

It wants to know how many servicemen and women have complained about side effects after taking mefloquine - which can include suicidal thoughts and psychotic episodes.

In August, Conservative MP Johnny Mercer, a former Army officer and Afghanistan veteran, called on the government to stop prescribing it until further research was carried out.

Antimalarial drugs

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

Mefloquine, or Lariam, 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.

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