The malaria drug Lariam (mefloquine) is linked to grisly crimes like Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ 2012 murder of 16 Afghan civilians, the murders of four wives of Fort Bragg soldiers in 2002 and other extreme violence. While the FDA beefed up warnings for mefloquine last summer, especially about the drug’s neurotoxic effects, and users are now given a medication guide and wallet card, Lariam and its generic versions are still the third most prescribed malaria medication in the US. Last year there were 119,000 prescriptions between January and June. Though Lariam/mefloquine is banned in Air Force pilots, until 2011, it was on the increase in the Navy and Marine Corps.
The negative neurotoxic side effects of mefloquine can last for “weeks, months, and even years,” after someone stops using it, warns the VA. Medical and military authorities say the drug “should not be given to anyone with symptoms of a brain injury, depression or anxiety disorder,” reported Army Times–which is, of course the demographic that encompasses “many troops who have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.” In addition to mefloquine’s wide use in the military, the civilian population taking malaria drugs includes Peace Corps and aid workers, business travelers, news media, students, NGO workers, industrial contractors, missionaries and families visiting relatives, often bringing children.
What makes mefloquine so deadly? It has the same features that made the street drug PCP/angel dust such an urban legend in the 1970s and 1980s. It can produce extreme panic, paranoia and rage in the user along with out-of-body “dissociative” and dream-like sensations so that someone performing a criminal act often thinks someone else is doing it. (“Dust” users were also reportedly impervious to pain and anecdotally, could pop their own handcuffs.) An example of such “dissociative” effects is seen in Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ rampage; according to prosecutors at his trial, Bales slipped away from his remote Afghanistan post, Camp Belambay, in a T-shirt, cape and night vision goggles and no body armor to attack his first victims. He then returned to the base and “woke a fellow soldier, reported what he’d done, and said he was headed out to kill more.” What?
In addition to Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ 2012 attacks and the 2002 Fort Bragg attacks, Lariam/mefloquine was linked, in news reports, to extreme side effects in an army Staff Sergeant in Iraq in 2005 and to the suicide of an Army Reservist in 2008…