SoldierSide-effects are one of the prices paid for the positive outcome of any prescribed medication; indeed, many of these are specified in small print via the folded-up leaflets that accompany the packages. Some are as long as shopping lists; every unwelcome addition to daily hang-ups over physical appearance seem to be possibilities – weight-gain, mood swings, spots, insomnia, loss of appetite, drowsiness, dehydration etc.; you name it, it’s a potential side-effect. In fact, the roll-call of probable side-effects is so ridiculously varied and vague that it does often make one wonder if the drugs companies are either utterly clueless or simply hedging their bets when it comes to future litigation on the part of the consumer.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that medication intended to combat a disease as serious as malaria is bound to contain its fair share of side-effects; and Lariam appears to boast an abundance of the worst kind. However, it is its regular use by the Ministry of Defence for immunising troops dispatched to parts of the world where malaria tends to strike that has hit the headlines today – particularly with the admission by former head of the British Army Lord Dannatt that, though he was running the show whilst soldiers were being given Lariam, he himself wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole.

To justify his aversion, Dannatt cites the negative experience of his own son with the drug after taking it as a precaution prior to an African holiday in the 90s; Dannatt says the side-effects made his son withdrawn and depressed, common side-effects where Lariam is concerned, along with suicidal thoughts and violent outbursts. Although Lariam isn’t the sole drug deployed to combat malaria, it was the standard anti-malarial drug given by the MoD to troops from 2007-15 – upwards of 17,000 soldiers. Lord Dannatt was in overall charge of the British Army from 2006-9, at a time when Lariam was being used, yet despite his awareness of the damage it could do, he said nothing.

Bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan during Dannatt’s tenure as head of the British Army, the issue of anti-malarial drugs was pushed on the backburner due to the troops largely engaged in conflict in areas where malaria wasn’t prominent. One ex-soldier who has gone public was dispatched to Sierra Leone in 2000, though, and such precautions were necessary in that case. He claims Lariam had an immediate impact, turning him into an ‘ogre’; it’s not an especially comforting image to realise trained armed men were on a foreign field in a precarious mental condition, though in response the MoD says that Lariam has only been given to troops after ‘individual risk assessments’ since 2013.

Dannatt has tentatively apologised for any damage done by the drug to British soldiers on his watch, though it obviously didn’t damage every troop exposed to it; the vagueness of potential side-effects as listed in the leaflets that are included in every box of prescribed medication cover all eventualities, though as a regular user of prescribed medication myself I recognise that few of the myriad side-effects conjured up in print have surfaced whenever I’ve been following the recommended course. Both the World Health Organisation and Public Health England endorse Lariam as an effective aid against malaria, and the company that manufactures it has issued a statement reinforcing its faith in the MoD to prescribe the drug with due care. This doesn’t detract from the fact that some of the more disturbing side-effects in the case of Lariam have indeed ruined lives, and Lord Dannatt’s belated public acknowledgment of this will probably be little comfort to its sufferers. Mind you, the military does have a history of caring for their cannon-fodder with somewhat casual nonchalance – particularly when it comes to chemical-related matters.

The original 1962 movie of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ reflected the concurrent experimental tests by the CIA that sprang from a sordid little project known as Operation Paperclip, whereby their response to alleged Soviet mind-control was to hire scientists who were actually Nazi war criminals and use unknowing military personnel as guinea pigs. The film depicts a character played by Laurence Harvey as an ex-US Marine captured by the enemy during the Korean War and brainwashed into becoming a sleeper assassin, triggered into action years later. It’s all Cold War paranoia, of course, but Operation Paperclip and its various illegal offshoots that contradicted the Nuremberg Code agreed to by the US in the aftermath of the Second World War were all-too real. Long before its elevation to compulsory recreation by the hippies, LSD was a regular drug of choice for such experiments, though the thought of attempting to issue orders to anyone tripping off their tits on Acid does seem like an exceptionally futile exercise.

Whilst the use of Lariam by the British Army pales next to the appalling operations indulged in by the CIA in the 50s, that Lord Dannatt has waited until now to come clean about his reservations is perhaps more indicative of the mindset within the MoD that sent British troops into war-zones ill-quipped and under-funded. If a country asks young men to lay down their lives for it, the least that country can do is to safeguard against that likelihood as best it can. In so many cases, those running the British Army have come up short too many times. And that’s simply not good enough.

© The Editor

7 thoughts on “THE DRUGS DON’T WORK

  1. There’s a similarity between the use of Lariam and the current mass prescription of statins – statistically, they are a good bet, they both offer benefits to a majority of those exposed to the risks they seek to counter, be that malaria or heart attacks. The problem is, they may be statistically effective, but not necessarily personally, because a person is an individual case, not an average.

    If you’re one of those who gains no benefit from them, there’s a good chance that the negative side-effects will be just a penalty without any gain for you and, – with statins, it’s generally not too bad but, in the case of Lariam, that penalty can be pretty disastrous.

    At the upper end of the military medical machine, we can simulate the decision-making process they must have undertaken – say they have 10,000 troops at risk of malaria in one zone, the vast majority of them will be protected from the horrid effects of malaria by taking Lariam, the most effective prophylactic treatment available, but some of them may suffer adverse effects. On balance, the military medics decided it was worth it because vastly more troops would be saved (say 1,000) than would suffer (say 10) – but that’s never going to be any consolation to those 10 individual troops who will personally suffer, through no fault of their own, just for being on the wrong side of the ‘average’.
    But what executive decision would we have made, faced with the same data ? That’s the tricky bit.

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  2. My understanding is that in most countries it is a drug of last resort: in the British army it has been a drug of first resort, no doubt because of money. That’s the way our government treats the men and women it asks to fight on our (or its) behalf. Criminal.

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  3. It was ever thus, as they say. In Italy, just after the war, the army did little to help British soldiers to protect themselves from VD which was rife, especially in the south. Rumour had it that our tea was laced with bromide but if that was the case, which I very much doubt, it never had any perceptible effect. We were made to sit through a horrifying American film depicting the seduction of an innocent GI and the consequences, illustrated by a close-up of his suppurating organ. This was successful in that it made one think twice before indulging, but of course the effect soon wore off. Much later, in north Italy, the army made condoms available to us, but only on individual application to the sergeant-major who kept them locked up. (On refection, I suppose that made some sense as condoms would have fetched a lot on the black market.)

    In Naples, however, we were at least able to use the facilities of the street “prophylactic” stations set up and run by the US army where GIs could give themselves a morning-after treatment with no questions asked. I don’t know whether our use of these places was down to typical American generosity or some official agreement, but whatever it was it must have helped to save a good many licentious Brits future problems at, presumably, no cost to the army.

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    1. Thanks for the reflection, Mr Pooter – I too had heard about the VD movies but have never seen one – I guess they’ll probably be lurking on YouTube now, but not sure I’ve got the stomach for it, so I’ll take your word for it.

      A little while earlier, my Eighth Army dad took part in the 1943 invasion of Italy – and there was I thinking he’d spent all his time and effort fighting his way up to Monte Cassino, when it turns out the biggest challenge was getting hold of a johnnie. He never told me about that bit.

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  4. ^ Mudplugger, that puts me in mind of Spike Milligan’s war memoir “Adolf Hitler, my part in his downfall”.

    Of course other peoples’ recollections and experiences were not like Spike Milligan’s, or Mudplugger’s dad.

    My maternal great uncle fought in WW2. My Irish father (by no means an Anglophobe but sometimes given to putting his foot in it) once asked him, at a family gathering, if he had killed anyone. Suffice to say a cold and stony silence descended on the dinner table.

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    1. Whilst Mudplugger Pater did not share Spike Milligan’s comic genius, it is revealing that almost all the stories my dad told of his own 6-year stretch of conscripted hell were also of the humorous, absurd, hilarious, inefficient and just plain daft incidents which occurred across North Africa, Sicily, Italy, D-Day and through to Berlin. For example, after more than 2 years of driving a large truck, towing a huge gun across the Egyptian, Libyan and Tunisian Deserts, he was brought back to the south coast of England in preparation for D-Day, to be ‘taught how to drive on sand’, no doubt by someone unworthy of licking the long-embedded grains of silica from his sphincter muscle !
      It’s as if they were all blocking out the many aspects of the horror of what they had been through, seen and done, including the ultimate taboo of killing others. I suspect Milligan was doing the same.
      It was only in late life, when reunited with one of his closest comrades, then both in their eighties, that some stories of the genuine horror and unreported heroism that they had experienced together began to emerge after 50 years of silence.
      Yet in 1946, those ordinary working blokes had simply put down their guns, returned to their civilian lives and picked up where they’d left off – no thoughts of ‘Sandy War Syndrome’ or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for them.

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