Side-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drug after taking it as a precaution prior to an African holiday in the 90s; Dannatt says the side-effects made his son withdrawn and depressed, common side-effects where Lariam is concerned, along with suicidal thoughts and violent outbursts.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