Some of you know that I wandered into the autism world through my reporting on an anti-malaria drug called Lariam that was causing some really hard-core symptoms, such as psychosis, suicide, and even aggressive behavior up to and including homicide. Quite an adverse-events roster, especially given that when I first started reporting on it back in 1999, it was the CDC's first-choice anti-malarial, and the agency said that reports of such side effects were overblown, unlikely -- even patently false.
Just "traveler's psychosis," sniffed the malaria surveillance officer at the CDC.
Meanwhile, elite soldiers coming back from Afghanistan committed murder-suicides, Peace Corps volunteers ended up in long-term psych wards, and random travelers came back from nice trips to Africa and blew their brains out. Association is not causation, the experts opined. "People with Internet mystique" who didn't know what they were talking about, the Army Surgeon General warned Congress about those sounding the alarm. (Sound familiar?)
But it was clearly happening. This denialism led me directly to another question: If the CDC, the FDA and the drug company could stand foursquare behind such a toxic substance, what about vaccines and autism -- a question first raised by my reporting partner at the time, Mark Benjamin, in a 2003 investigative report that I edited. Mark went on to do distinguished work on several other subjects. I got stuck on this question of whether vaccines and the autism epidemic were related -- which, I've concluded based on my own reporting, they were. And are.
But back to Lariam, known generically as mefloquine. Over the years, the CDC has dialed back on recommending it; the FDA has ratcheted up the warnings, which now do mention suicide and say that effects can last "long after" someone stops taking it (FDA speak for, "forever"); the manufacturer, Roche pharmaceuticals, has stopped selling it in the United States (along with its equally suicide-inducing anti-acne medicine, Accutane), and the Army no longer pushes it on every soldier it deploys to malarial hot zones, like Afghanistan.
But it's still an approved prescription drug, and it still is prescribed thousands of times a year, and the Army -- which invented it -- can't bear to actually ban its use, which, given the toxic brew of guns, PTSD, and violence into which it is introduced, is truly wild.
This long-running record of delay and denial has now run
smack into its karmic brick wall, it appears -- a soldier who committed the
worst atrocity (on our side) in the war on terror. Time mag reported this week
that Sgt. Robert Bales, who just pleaded guilty to slaughtering 17 Afghan
civilians in 2012, including women and children, and set some of them on fire,
may have been taking mefloquine. It's something a lot of us who know what this
drug can do have been speculating about for quite some time.
The Kill Pill: Murder, Madness, and the Army's Mefloquine Cover-up
Time cites a document filed with the drugmaker and
forwarded to the FDA. While it's not clear who filed it, the reference to a
homicide of 16 civilians (the first press accounts used that figure) could only
be referring to Bales' rampage, and the use of the term "medically
confirmed" suggests Roche was satisfied that Bales was taking it. As Time
points out, the Army has yet to say whether he took it or not -- suspicious in
itself -- and it is now past time for the military to come clean. Here's a
portion of the report on file with the FDA: (Click photo to enlarge.)
The fact the military let Bales plead guilty and get a life term -- I mean, what is the death penalty FOR? -- suggests the Army might want the whole thing to blow over. So does the fact that the Army has put out lots of smoke, in the form of information that Bales was snorting Valium (didn't even know you could do that!), drinking contraband hooch and taking steroids.
Yeah, but if he was also taking mefloquine, that would explain a lot. And we are entitled to know it before Bales is sentenced.
By now, a drug that clearly causes homicide should have been yanked off the market, especially given the alternatives available. The only excuse for its use MIGHT be as a treatment, not a preventive, for deadly cerebral malaria. To have given it to hundreds of thousands of healthy soldiers, Peace Corps volunteers, and random civilians since 1989 who had no idea of the risk they were taking, even while the government and the drug company did know, is inexcusable.
Inexcusable but instructive. Mefloquine shows what we're really dealing with in a lot of areas -- a military, medical, and public health bureaucracy that, when it comes to weighing the costs and benefits of prescriptions drugs and other medical interventions, is immunized against basic human instincts like balance, transparency, honesty, and basic compassion.
For starters, you can bet that a significant portion of PTSD and suicide in the military is being driven not only by the stress of combat, or combat-related brain injuries, but by the "long after" horrors of this stupid drug. And you can bet that the enablers will avoid acknowledging it as long as possible.
The drug should be withdrawn immediately, Congress should hold hearings, and an Agent Orange-style treatment and compensation program should be set up, outside the reach of the CYA characters within the military and without who created this nightmare.
And of course it's not just mefloquine that's messing with soldiers' and veterans' heads. The military has poured tons of anti-depressants, dubious vaccines like anthrax, stay-awake pills and all sorts of other toxic gunk into the most medicated military ever. If they can't even bring themselves to face the clearcut consequences of mefloquine, they will never willingly look at what they've done in the broader field of military medicine.
Ditto on the whole issue of unsafe medicines across the board, in what we like to call the civilian world. Those include vaccines with toxic ingredients like mercury, multiple shots given too soon to infants, and on and on.
Unless an aggrieved citizenry gets up in arms and, through their elected representatives, demands accountability and action, this will never end.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.