Did we poison our Somalia soldiers?
Back in October, CTV's W5 aired an intriguing item about mefloquine, the anti-malaria drug our soldiers took in Somalia - and still take in malaria-prone areas - which has side-effects that have caused the drug to be re-examined in other parts of the world.
Many believe mefloquine may have been responsible for some of the bizarre behavior of our troops in Somalia, since the drug was still in experimental stages in 1992 and not legally sold in Canada. W5 discovered that when the now-disbanded Airborne Regiment was sent to Somalia, Health Canada sanctioned the use of mefloquine (under the brand name Lariam, manufactured by Hoffman-La Roche) only on condition it was a controlled study with soldiers monitored and effects recorded.
None of this was done. As we now know, side-effects can lead to severe psycho-neurological problems. Dr. Michelle Brill-Edwards, a Health Canada drug regulator, quit in protest of possible dangerous psychiatric reactions - full-blown psychoses in cases, as well as hallucinations, nausea, nightmares, paranoia and suicidal impulses.
Yet Brig.-Gen. Wendy Clay, former surgeon-general of the Canadian Forces and now director of Health Canada, said: "Mefloquine is used by the Canadian military whenever they are in malaria zones, like Haiti and Cambodia." The government and DND refuse to acknowledge there may be serious problems with mefloquine, and note (correctly) that it is the most effective anti-malaria drug around.
Reform MP John Cummins is a vociferous critic of mefloquine, and speculates it could be responsible for Master Cpl. Clayton Matchee's rampage when he beat a Somali prisoner to death in 1993. I've had soldiers, both serving and discharged, say their behavior was affected for a year or so after they had extended use of mefloquine in Somalia or Rwanda. Some are investigating a class action suit against the government.
Not given a choice, Canadian soldiers were ordered to take mefloquine in Somalia and Rwanda. One soldier, Scott Smith, who went from Somalia to Rwanda and was on mefloquine for most of a year, inexplicably committed suicide on Christmas Day, 1995.
Last spring, Britain's Daily Telegraph reported a leading doctor at the Defence Ministry spent two years researching mefloquine and determined that its "toxicity has been conclusively demonstrated," with unacceptable side-effects. British studies indicate one of every 140 users has serious side-effects.
Getting back to Somalia, in October 1994 Hoffman-La Roche's office in Mississauga formally notified DND it had received no response about shipments of mefloquine sent to the army in Petawawa, Ont., and the medical centre in Debert, N.S., in 1992. The understanding was that the military would be a "co-investigator" in a study that required them to "maintain logs of distribution," complete with consent forms from soldiers.
Health Canada demanded an answer within 24 hours. DND responded that it did not consider troops to be part of a "safety monitoring study," and no mefloquine consent forms were necessary for soldiers.
These documents weren't given to the Somalia inquiry which, according to Cummins, wasn't aware our soldiers were, in effect, guinea pigs for a drug at the time illegal in Canada.
What's disquieting is that there seems no awareness in government circles that mefloquine, while effective against malaria, might indeed be dangerous, with unknown victims among our military.
Unlike the British army, the Canadian military seems to have blind confidence in mefloquine, even though it warns that those with judgment jobs, like neurosurgeons or airline pilots, shouldn't use it. But it's OK for young men with loaded weapons. Does that make sense?
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