The top doctor for the Army’s special operations command has ordered special forces units to stop taking the anti-malaria drug Mefloquine in a recent message to military commanders and medical personnel.
The move comes two months after the Food and Drug Administration issued their strongest warning to date, ordering manufacturers to put a black box label on the drug packaging to signal severe side effects. The drug, which protects against the sometimes fatal mosquito-borne virus that soldiers are exposed to while on deployments overseas, has been connected with neurologic disorders and side effects such as dizziness, and loss of balance, which may persist or become permanent. Among veterans, the drug has also been connected with anxiety, depression and hallucinations, some leading to violence and suicide.
The most recent prohibition issued by the Surgeon General's Office of the Army Special Operations Command reinforces the decline of the use of the drug in the armed forces. From 2008 to 2011, Army prescriptions fell by 75 percent, and in the first half of 2013, it was prescribed to around 2,400 defense personnel and family members, compared to more than 20,000 in all of 2009.
Top Defense Department officials told the A.P. that the drug is a last resort for troops.
The Surgeon General also asked Army officials to assess whether their troops had been sickened by the drug and had their symptoms misdiagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder or other psychological problems.
Mefloquine was developed by Army doctors in the 1970s, and first licensed as Lariam in 1990. The drug was prescribed to troops deployed to Somalia in 1992-94, as well as some early deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans experiencing lasting side effects of the drug have formed a growing Facebook group called “Veterans Against Lariam,” with over 15,000 members.
The ban against the drug comes as VA hospital have been put under scrutiny for over-medicating their patients, according to a recent investigation that found that the number of patients in the VAs system has risen by 29 percent while the number of prescriptions has risen by 259 percent.
The Pentagon is currently collecting data on the number of veterans who have fallen ill due to Mefloquine, and is expected to issue a report next January.