Fight for justice on malaria drug

26 May 2016

Opinion – Ross Eastgate Townsville Bulletin 26 May 2016

Ross Eastgate

IT’S cold comfort for some Australian veterans but this week a British parliamentary report recommended Lariam be used as an antimalarial drug only in very restricted cases.

Produced by Swiss pharmaceutical conglomerate Roche, Lariam is the brand name for mefloquine, a known neurotoxin which has also been trialled on ADF personnel.

Lariam is now either banned or used as a drug of last resort by military forces in Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, and the US.

It remains the third drug of choice in the ADF.

Leading the British anti-mefloquine campaign was former UK Defence Chief General David Richards who as a brigadier commanded the UK Interfet contingent in 1999-2000.

Later in 2000 Richards twice commanded a UK joint taskforce in Sierra Leone where British military concerns were first raised about psychiatric side effects associated with mefloquine usage including psychotic behaviour and hallucinations.

At the same time the Australian Army Malaria Institute (AMI) was clinically trialling mefloquine on ADF personnel deployed to East Timor.

Perhaps “trying” is a better description because the formal requirements of a clinical trial including informed consent were not strictly adhered to according to those who participated, including many Townsville-based personnel.

The consequences for many of those original ADF trial participants and more tragically their families, have been appalling.

Of all organisations, AMI should have performed better but its approach to recent antimalarial clinical trials appears haphazard at best, criminally negligent at worst.

Originally established in Cairns in 1943 when malaria was still endemic in Far North Queensland, it looked to alternative treatments after Japan invaded Indonesia, quarantining the world’s primary source of quinine.

According to its website, AMI “is a world-recognised centre for malaria research and training.

“Its main mission is to ensure ADF personnel are able to have the best possible protection against malaria and other vector-borne diseases”.

In a proper clinical trial drugs are administered under supervision and monitoring by medically qualified personnel.

In army units it is the role of medically unqualified platoon sergeants to issue the drugs while recording that in platoon rolls.

Worse, AMI also decided to try tafenoquine, which the US Army Walter Reed Institute declared “more neurotoxic than mefloquine”.

Personnel participating in tafenoquine trials in Bougainville were warned of its possible adverse anaemic effects though not of its possible psychiatric effects.

Simply given the drug, they were sent unsupervised to their accommodation to record their reactions in log books. Most were too ill or psychologically affected to do so logically.

British troops may now be able to sue the British government for compensation.

Similarly affected Australian veterans have been told if they successfully sue, they may not only lose but could be required to pay back benefits already received.

While the ADF hierarchy continues to deny any culpability or malpractice, those permanently affected have a different view.

Those who died through their acquired toxicity are silent and survivors feel abandoned and betrayed.

They are determined like their now vindicated British counterparts for the truth to prevail.