The Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs will study the side effects of Lariam, a drug given to servicemen to prevent malaria, Pentagon spokesman Jim Turner said.
The use of Lariam came up in investigations of murders and murder-suicides involving Fort Bragg soldiers in the summer of 2002, when four soldiers were accused of killing their wives. Two of those soldiers committed suicide immediately and a third killed himself in jail.
The three soldiers who killed themselves had served in Afghanistan, where Lariam is routinely used by U.S. troops. The fourth, who is still awaiting trial, did not serve there.
A November 2002 report by the office of the Army Surgeon General said two of the four soldiers had taken Lariam, but the Army would not say which. The report said Lariam probably did not factor in the killings.
Turner said a subcommittee of the Armed Forces Epidemiological Board met two weeks ago to consider ways to study the use of Lariam among service members. A Veterans Affairs spokeswoman said the VA will review the issue but has not issued a report on the study.
Lariam, which is also known as mefloquine, is routinely prescribed to soldiers working in countries where malaria is a problem. Some people have blamed it for causing psychotic reactions, including depression, hallucinations and thoughts of suicide.
In rare cases, Lariam has been associated with serious adverse reactions such as hallucinations and convulsions and minor side effects such as gastrointestinal disturbance and dizziness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jeanne Lese, co-founder of Lariam Action USA, a group that provides information about the drug online, questioned the intentions behind the government studies.
“I hope it’s a good-faith-effort study,” Lese said. “But you have to ask, ‘Is the VA the best group to study a problem within the VA?’ I hope they would hire some independent scientists to do the study.”
Turner said the Department of Defense intends to use outside scientists. He said the study may begin within the next several months.
The Department of Defense does not recommend using Lariam for service members deployed to Iraq, Turner said. Instead, the antimalarial drugs doxycycline or chloroquine, which protect against the type of malaria typically found in Iraq, are recommended.
Lariam is available on a case-by-case basis in Iraq and is one of three antimalarial drugs used by service members in Afghanistan, Turner said.
Lese said the military should reconsider giving Lariam to service members in combat areas because of the CDC’s warning that it should not be used by people performing tasks that require fine coordination and spatial discrimination.
“We shouldn’t be giving this drug to people with guns,” she said.
Turner said military operational commanders and medical advisers decide whether to use antimalarial medications when they are planning missions.
“Under some conditions, mefloquine is the only antimalarial that will protect our service members, and not using it in such instances could lead to severe illnesses or death,” Turner said.
Lese agrees that in some instances Lariam is an invaluable drug. She said her group wants the military to screen service members for psychological problems and tell them about potential side effects before prescribing Lariam.
Shannon Lynch, a spokeswoman for Womack Army Medical Center on Fort Bragg, said all servicemen are screened before being prescribed any medication to make sure they will not have a reaction to the drug. Soldiers are advised of possible side effects, including those for mefloquine, Lynch said.