The Kill Pill: Murder, Madness, and the Army's Mefloquine Cover-up
It’s great that the military, the VA, and the mainstream media are giving more attention to the awful mental health problems plaguing soldiers and veterans. What's not so great -- in fact, awful -- is their continuing failure to recognize the role played by the military’s own toxic anti-malaria drug.
Until that occurs, the toll will continue to rise.
The federal government has a long and sorry record of ignoring, suppressing, and covering up the truth about the drug, called mefloquine and also known by the brand name Lariam. You can almost hear the silence as the Pentagon holds its collective breath in hopes that Sgt. Robert Bales, who allegedly went on a rampage last month in Afghanistan, killing 17 villagers and setting some of them, including children, on fire, was not prescribed the drug.
That answer will emerge in time, though many have wondered why the Army won't say so if he simply didn't take it. Either way, the renewed attention from the Bales case should not be allowed to pass without reprising the military’s unconscionable history with the drug it invented and licensed to Roche pharmaceuticals, and the role of other federal agencies, in particular the FDA and CDC, in approving and recommending it. This is important because the effects are far worse and far more frequent than the military cares to admit (just check the official product label for “suicide,” "hallucinations," "psychotic or paranoid reactions," and “aggression”), and because (also per the label) they can last “long after” someone stops taking it. In many cases, that means forever. What was once a problem for deployed soldiers is now a problem for more and more reservists and veterans every day.
It is also important because the failures surrounding this drug go straight to the issue of pattern and practice -- whether the federal government is doing its job in protecting citizens from unsafe medicines. (The drug's manufacturer, Swiss-based Roche, has much to answer for as well. It stopped distributing it in the U.S. a couple of years ago but a generic remains available.)
Mefloquine has been damaging U.S. troops often enough for long enough – since the Somalia action in the early 1990s, soon after the drug was hurriedly approved in 1989 – that there are now thousands of veterans with very clear mefloquine toxicity ranging from chronic dizziness to psychosis to unrelenting depression. Some of them – an undetermined but not insubstantial number – are now dead, and some of those have taken with them family, friends, and bystanders who happened to get in the way of a full-blown mefloquine rage.
Now the VA is adding hundreds of psychiatrists to help veterans with their mental health nightmares. Nicholas Kristof of the agenda-setting New York Times has called attention to the veteran suicide rate of one every 80 minutes. The drugging of service members with everything from Adderall to Prozac is being recognized for the problem it is. But a widely prescribed pill that can cause suicide and homicide? It is still strangely absent from this discussion.
The military will tell you it’s been on the case, but that is just spin. Yes, it dialed back on (but did not eliminate) the use of the drug in 2009; yes, it reminded medical officers earlier this year to follow prescribing information (and the Army followed up with an urgent memo just days after the Bales incident that looks a little suspicious).
But these concerns were clear years earlier, when the Army dug a deep hole and buried them. The low point came when it covered up – the right word – the role Lariam played in the murder-suicides at Fort Bragg in the summer of 2002 involving elite Special Operations soldiers returning from Afghanistan.
Within a couple of years, as tens of thousands more soldiers were ordered to take mefloquine in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and some started returning home -- the problems escalated. At United Press International, Mark Benjamin and I (teaming up with CNN) wrote on September 7, 2004:
“A startling pattern of violence and suicide by America's most elite soldiers has followed their use of a controversial anti-malaria drug, an investigation by United Press International and CNN has found.
“The government already warns that the drug, called Lariam, might cause long-term mental problems -- including aggression and suicide."
In response, Sen. Dianne Feinstein said: "The Department of Defense, and all other government agencies that give this drug to their employees, should immediately reassess their decision to use Lariam and look for alternatives that can protect our troops without causing dangerous side effects."
But as we reported in the same article, the Army defended the drug “as both highly effective and safe for soldiers to take. Army medical officials declined requests for an interview but said in a written statement, ‘We have no data that indicate that Lariam was a factor in any Army suicides in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan).’
“Instead, the Army said, the deaths were linked to ‘failed personal relationships, financial crises, legal difficulties and mental problems like depression and psychosis’ -- the same factors that trigger suicide in the general public, magnified by ready access to guns.”
Blame the victim, in other words. The worst case of that came in 2003, as The New York Times reported on November 5: "Not since the Vietnam War has the Army punished a soldier for being too scared to do his duty. But on Friday, Sgt. Georg Andreas Pogany will appear in front of military court here to face charges he was a coward." That was punishable by death, but after it was established he took Lariam and suffered a psychotic break as a direct result, Pogany fought the Army to a standstill, got the charges dropped and received an honorable discharge for medical reasons. He went on to fight for other soldiers and vets.
The truth was as obvious a decade ago as it is now. A drug that can make people kill should not be given to soldiers. It should not be given to anyone. Way back in 2002, we talked to Gerald F. Meyer, former deputy director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.
"I do not know of any product that would be allowed to generate a psychosis that could stimulate someone to commit murder and be an approved drug," said Meyer, who was not familiar with Lariam but an expert on drug safety. "I do not know of any, and I cannot imagine one."
Dan Olmsted is Editor of AgeofAutism.com and co-author, with Mark Blaxill, of The Age of Autism – Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-Made Epidemic. With Mark Benjamin, he wrote a series of articles on mefloquine side effects for UPI from 2002 to 2004. Their investigation of the drug’s impact on U.S. soldiers was named Best Wire Service Reporting by the National Mental Health Association. [email protected].
Dan, add my family to your growing list of affected!! My brother committed suicide after returning from Afghanistan. He actually worked in the Jalalabad air traffic control tower at the base where they brought Bin lauden's body after they killed him. Please get this information out to the public because some families may have a chance if they know what is causing thier loved ones erratic behavior. Forget counting on the military to take care of it. It will never happen!!! Look at agent orange~ But my brother had 2 children. One under 1 yrs old and this is not fair to them!! He loved them so much!! I've been trying to do what I can and have been getting severe reprocussions from it. Even though I won't stop, I do believe I will be dead within 2 years or so and I don't have much of an "audience." Please!! To protect those people and families that still have time as well as in honor of those lost......
Posted by: me | March 29, 2013 at 12:22 AM
We had taken the drug for months also. Prior to going to Somalia, while in Somalia, and when we returned Stateside. We weren't in Somalia long and a member of our platoon actually went crazy. At the time, we were told that was one of the side effects. I talked to another member of pur platoon this past year. Sadly, he remembers very little of his enlistment during the early 1990's. If you want some comfort within a great group of people, join the Veterans Against Lariam facebook page. The sad part, the U.S. Government is fully aware. The longer they drag their feet on Lariam, the less they will have to budget for disability claims. We held on to our end of the bargain in serving our Country......... At what point will the U.S. Government follow suit and uphold their end?
Posted by: nate tyler | August 07, 2012 at 09:41 PM
Autism is from obvious problems not getting solved, which should be solvable. This military situation is the same problem (a solvable problem not getting solved). So, thank you for mentioning it. I know a lot of people who complain that some of the military are coming back with aggressive moods and staying that way. In today's times, we are putting way too much blame on events, when in reality, it's the biology that we need to be blaming. In other words, we need to look at biology to successfully solve many of today's health and behavioral problems.
Posted by: Heidi N | April 24, 2012 at 12:55 AM
The military will continue to follow a long tradition in handling of news events which may have either a price tag associated or significant negative impact of public audiences. That tradition is "3D" ... Deny, delay and distract.
They will follow this script until they are forced to deal with it; usually this is through forced testimony under oath at congressional hearings
This issue screams for congressional hearings and immediate intervention.
The media have also resisted reporting this issue, in my opinion, because a very significant portion of advertising revenue comes to media corporations in a time when such revenue has been drastically reduced.
Drug companies also send significant lobby dollars to congress -- no big secret here -- which adds to congresses apparent apathy to such issues as mefloquine dangers.
I heard through the grapevine that Hillary (and/or Chelsea) Clinton had an adverse reaction to Mefloquine on a trip to Africa. Might be worth a few phone calls, IDK.
Posted by: Robert V | April 24, 2012 at 12:33 AM
Dan, I was in one of the units that took Lariam in Somalia and may have a few incidents for you. No proof that any were lariam related of course, but the involved people all took it.
1. While in Somalia a soldier in our Scout platoon pulled his M-16 on his squad leader. He was disarmed by other soldiers but was kept under watch the remainder of the deployment (~2 more months). This was not a normally agressive man, quite the opposite, which made the incident make no sense to us at the time.
2. ~9 months after returning from Somalia a Medic in my unit stabbed his wife to death in their home. If my memory serrves correctly it hit CNN once then some ex football player allegedly stabbed HIS wife the same day so that story became big news fro some reason.
3. When deplyoed to Haiti in 1994 (not taking Lariam but Chlorquine instead) two in my battalion soldiers committed suicide in seperate incidents. These soldiers had both been in Somalia and taken Lariam there. What was particularily odd to me at the time was that Haiti was pretty peaceful, especially when compared to Somalia.
I don't know if you have heard about these incidents before or not but thought someone should know. Thanks for your work trying to get this into the public eye.
Posted by: John Stockton | April 23, 2012 at 08:37 PM
Thank you for sharing information like this with the public. I honestly feel that without writers like you we would never hear of these things/
Posted by: LB | April 23, 2012 at 08:35 PM
Besides the tragic loss of great American Veterans the saddest thing going on is that the government doesn't feel the need to pull the med, do the research or attempt to make things right.
What does that say about us as a people?
Posted by: David Haines | April 23, 2012 at 06:04 PM
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent a lot of money getting a 'semi-synthetic' version of Artemisinin ready and they have been giving it to people around the world in their effort to close out Malaria. The compound is not patentable which would save money, and it has been fully tested and is safe to use for all humans. A simple call to the Gates Foundation could get the military in touch with them and save the taxpayers a lot of money. Of course, they would want to spend much more than that, but the deal is there waiting...:)
Posted by: Victor Gates | April 23, 2012 at 06:01 PM
This was in my local paper today:
Posted by: Mary | April 23, 2012 at 04:52 PM
When my brother entered the Army in the early 90s, he was given NINE vaccines in the same day. He was never deployed to Iraq so he was not given Lariam. But the vaccines did significant damage. He left the Army two years later with severe gastrointestinal issues. He was soon after diagnosed with schizophrenia and then a heart condition associated with mercury poisoning.
He had a heart attack at the age of 38. He is 47 and lives with my parents, not able to work. We are convinced he was vaccine injured by the Army.
Posted by: Mary | April 23, 2012 at 04:49 PM
Dan; That is a horrible tale!!!
I have been up close and personal to a person suffering psychosis and afterwards - to hear them tell what it was like and their fear at somewhat knowing what was going on and no control of what was going on.
A true horror movie, of zombies!
What I don't understand is why it continues to go on.
This has been going on long enough that "Law and Order" did a show on it. They got it pretty much right - unlike most of the time when they don't. That was years ago.
Years ago too when soldiers were coming home and killing their spouses, and themselves.
Posted by: Benedetta | April 23, 2012 at 01:49 PM
I think it is clear that Lariam is another disastrous drug, though it is hard for me to be certain we are clearly getting the truth about any aspect of the Afghanistan shootings.
If I understand correctly, fluorine is part of the chemical formulation of Mefloquine, and there is some concern, at least over the web, about fluorine and violence. Prozac is another drug containing fluorine molecules and is also linked to suicide and violence.
Posted by: Jeannette Bishop | April 23, 2012 at 01:40 PM
@trade ya -- i have no doubt that mayhem has been associated with the drug as long as it's been on the market, so 1989. i'm not aware of specific instances inside the U.S. before 2002, when the fort bragg murder-suicides happened. i'm certainly interested in hearing about any. but here's another one from 1997 in Ecuador, in the story linked to in my post:
The 1997 apparent suicide of a Special Forces soldier uncovered in the UPI-CNN investigation involved a Green Beret weapons sergeant who was in a room with two other soldiers at a base near Quito, Ecuador.
"He had picked up the team sergeant's weapon. He looked at the team sergeant and asked if it was loaded. Then he looked at my other friend, smiled, and pulled the trigger," said Justin Schuman, a former Army staff sergeant who retired in June. Schuman was not in the room during the shooting but was present when the medical helicopter arrived. He said the two soldiers who were in the room at the time immediately described what happened.
"We were at a loss. We really had no idea what possessed him to do that," Schuman said. "We knew there were some stressors in his life. He was about to get remarried, but there was nothing in particular. Nobody mentioned Lariam."
Schuman said he and the two soldiers who were present decided to portray the incident as an accident.
"We told Army investigators that it was an accidental discharge because (we feared) they would have denied his family all his benefits. Because he never said anything about suicide, we just played it off as if he was playing suicide."
But it could not have been an accident, he said. "There really is no more trained person in the world than a trained (Special Forces) weapons sergeant. I can't tell you that it was the Lariam, but he was on Lariam at the time and he committed suicide right in front of us in a very bizarre way."
Posted by: dan olmsted | April 23, 2012 at 11:00 AM
I would take Dan's opinion on this drug as gospel.
I lived in NC in the mid 1990s, very early internet era, when I think that most newspapers were not on line. I recall Lariam-associated deaths at military bases around that time, but when I look for info that far back, I can't find it. Unless I am recalling things incorrectly, there was a wave of murder-suicides with returning soldiers even back then- well before 2002. I think the death toll goes back farther than is generally acknowledged, with Lariam getting scrutiny even then. Is that right, Dan?
Posted by: trade ya | April 23, 2012 at 10:26 AM
Great reporting Dan thank you!
Robert Bales case is the rub. Was he on the drug or not? That could be a prominent feature of his defense if he was.
The whole thing stinks.
Posted by: ottoshcnaut | April 23, 2012 at 10:20 AM
“Instead, the Army said, the deaths were linked to ‘failed personal relationships, financial crises, legal difficulties and mental problems like depression and psychosis ..
We ought not be surprised the Army .. to avoid any responsibility for good intentions that may have gone seriously awry .. which preceded/initiated a rash of homicides and suicides .. "blamed the victim".
"Blaming the victim" is standard operating procedure for anyone whose good intentions have gone awry .. only the excuses change .. "obese moms, older dads, pet shampoos, living too close to freeways ..
Posted by: Bob Moffitt | April 23, 2012 at 07:01 AM