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Tories call for ‘immediate action’ to study effects of anti-malarial drug

A Canadian light armored vehicle drives next to a soldier during a patrol in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province, Afghanistan, June 25, 2011. Mefloquine was handed out to soldiers in Somalia, Rwanda, Cambodia and Afghanistan.

BAZ RATNER/REUTERS

Conservative MPs are calling upon the Liberal government to conduct a scientific study into the effects of an anti-malarial drug that some veterans say has left them with psychiatric problems and that they blame for the violence that erupted on the Somalia mission in the early 1990s.

The veterans affairs committee of the House of Commons, which has heard emotional testimony about mefloquine's lasting effects, wrote to Health Minister Jane Philpott last week to point out the concerns that have been raised about the current and historical use of the drug. Conservatives on that committee issued a statement on Tuesday to emphasize what they say is the need for more research.

"We are very pleased that the committee reached a unanimous decision to write to the Minister of Health regarding this very serious issue. We were all deeply moved by veterans' testimony at committee and their bravery in coming forward to share their stories," Conservative MPs John Brassard, Cathay Wagantall and Robert Kitchen said in their statement.

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Read more: What you need to know about antimalarial drug mefloquine

Read more: Health Minister urged to re-examine possible side effects of anti-malarial drug

"It is our hope that the Liberal government will take immediate action and conduct a true scientific study that examines this medication's potential side effects and the impacts it may have had on our veterans, those currently serving in the Canadian Armed Forces, and members of the public," they wrote.

Dr. Philpott's staff forwarded questions about the committee's letter to communications officials within Health Canada, who would say only that the government continues to monitor the safety of mefloquine and will take action as necessary to make sure the benefits continue to outweigh its risks.

The Conservatives are not the only ones who are urging more study of mefloquine.

"We're about to send out troops to [Africa], and they will be required to take anti-malarial drugs," said Irene Mathyssen, a New Democrat MP who is also on the veterans affairs committee. "I don't understand why Health Canada can't really take a close look at it and do the kind of responsible studying that the anecdotal information suggests should happen."

A group of former soldiers has also been asking Ottawa to fund more thorough studies of mefloquine and to develop better techniques for distinguishing damage caused by the drug from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, which it mimics.

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Health Canada updated the prescribing information for mefloquine in August to emphasize that certain side effects can persist for months or years after the drug is discontinued and may be permanent in some patients. Symptoms reported by some users include anxiety, paranoia, depression, hallucinations, psychotic behaviour and, in rare cases, thoughts of suicide.

Hugh MacKay, the military Surgeon-General, has said he does not believe there is enough scientific evidence that the drug – which is still offered to Canadian troops when they are deployed to countries where malaria is prevalent – can cause permanent damage to warrant investing additional money in research.

But General Jonathan Vance, the Chief of Defence Staff, has asked Dr. MacKay to conduct a review to determine how and when it should be used. That would entail looking at existing studies, as opposed to conducting new research.

Mefloquine is currently the option selected by about 5 per cent of Canadian troops who are prescribed anti-malarials. In the United States it is given to just 1 per cent of soldiers deploying to a region where malaria is a threat.

"Mefloquine has been 'black boxed' in the United States and is only used in extreme situations in the United Kingdom and Australia," wrote the three Conservative MPs. "In light of the fact that the Liberals intend to deploy Canadian troops to Africa in the near future, we fully expect the government to take action and to align itself with our allies on this important issue."

Two members of the Somalia mission were charged in the beating death of a 16-year-old Somali boy in 1993. The troops who took part in that peacekeeping deployment were required to take mefloquine as part of a poorly monitored clinical trial.

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The drug was also handed out in Rwanda, Cambodia and Afghanistan.

A class-action lawsuit has now been launched against the defence department and pharmaceutical manufacturer Hoffmann-La Roche, on behalf of veterans who say their lives have been ruined by mefloquine. Some of the vets are also asking for the government to reach out to all of those former soldiers who have taken the drug to determine if they are experiencing long-term effects, and to conduct an inquiry into its use in Somalia.

But Defence Minister Harjit Singh told The Globe and Mail last week that he would leave the question of any inquiry up to medical experts. "As much as I would love to comment on any issue that pops up," said Mr. Singh, "I have to rely on our experts who are there to make these types of decisions."

With a file from Les Perreaux in Montreal

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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