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Malaria Drug Under Scrutiny After Suicides

Jan 29, 2003 | CBC News

The world's malaria experts are meeting this week to discuss the safety of anti-malarial drugs, including Lariam. It's been suspected of causing serious psychiatric side effects.

Malaria kills three million people every year. Vacationers going to tropical areas such as southeast Asia or Africa often have to take malaria pills with them.

Lariam is commonly prescribed because it only has to be taken weekly, not daily as with other anti-malarial medication.

Health Canada has received more than 50 reports of suspected serious side effects from people who've taken Lariam. The most common are hallucinations, nightmares, anxiety and depression.

Michel Malaca took Lariam on his honeymoon through China, Vietnam and Malaysia. Within two weeks of taking the drug, he was overwhelmingly sad.

"I thought about suicide, for no reason, because the trip was going very well," recalls Malaca. "It was sunny. Everybody was friendly…so I didn't understand why I would be thinking about that during my trip."

Malaca has no history of mental illness. There's no way to confirm Lariam caused his depression but that's what his doctor suspected. Malaca says he felt better after going off the drug.

"When I stopped, gradually I didn't feel depressed any more, after about a month."

When Canadian soldiers serving in Somalia were given Lariam, there were also reports of paranoia, hallucinations and suicide.

There were more questions last year about the drug after a cluster of murders and suicides on an army base in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

After that, the company sent a letter to American doctors advising the drug can cause "anxiety, paranoia, and depression…hallucinations and psychotic behavior." And that "rare cases of…suicide have been reported."

Despite the reports, international malaria experts won't recommend doctors stop prescribing Lariam.

"It's a good drug for many people," says Dr. Kevin Kain, a tropical disease specialist at the University of Toronto. "I don't think it would be appropriate to just stop using it given that we have so few other options."

Other experts say consumers should consider going to a tropical disease specialist rather than their family doctor when it comes to getting anti-malaria pills. The specialist will have the most up to date information about the drugs and know which one to prescribe.

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