July 25, 2021

Does this malaria drug drive you crazy?

“I know others, you know. Guys who were with me in Somalia. They are aggressive, they are no longer able with their families. Everything is falling apart. The same business touch as me. ”

At the end of the line, Claude Lalancette’s voice breaks. Then she goes up a notch and a flood of accusing words surges. This former paratrooper in the Canadian Armed Forces admits it bluntly: he’s got a lot on his heart, and he’s not doing well. Native of the Loretteville district, in Quebec, member of the Royal 22e Regiment, he says he suffers from depression, concentration problems and aggressiveness.

“I lost my family, my home, my health, my honor,” he said last month in Ottawa. He was testifying before the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, which is studying in the House of Commons the prevention of suicide among veterans.

Mr. Lalancette is convinced that the source of his problems has a name: mefloquine, a malaria drug formerly marketed under the name Lariam. He took them in 1992 and 1993 when he was deployed to Somalia by the Canadian Armed Forces.

Nightmares, aggressiveness, hypervigilance: he says he saw his personality radically transformed under the effect of the medication. “I was always looking for trouble. At night I was not able to sleep. I left the base dressed in civilian clothes, with a 9mm on me, to go for a walk in Mogadishu. ”

On his return from Somalia, Mr. Lalancette saw his career and his personal life decline. He has psychoses, is depressed, fights during episodes of road rage. He thinks about suicide several times. In 2007, the former parachutist was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. But medication and psychotherapy don’t help.

After having fled to Latin America for several years to forget his problems, Mr. Lalancette has now taken refuge in Kitchener, Ontario, in an apartment he says is on the verge of losing because it is in debt. He treats his symptoms with cannabis.

“I’m trying to get out of this, sir. My son came to live with me, but he was no longer able and went back to Quebec. I’m alone in an empty apartment, ”he says.

Serious effects

It is difficult to know if it was really mefloquine that turned Claude Lalancette’s life upside down. But the scientific evidence is now clear: This drug can cause significant side effects in some people, ranging from anxiety and depression to nightmares, insomnia, aggression and hallucinations. It is also recognized that these problems, in some cases, do not stop with discontinuation of medication and can last for months or even years, and even become permanent.

Knowing this, Canadian veterans, like those of several other countries, are asking the military to shed light on the effects that mefloquine could have had on their health. Last week, TVA revealed that the ex-wife of a Quebec soldier intends to sue the Canadian army. Her ex-partner returned troubled and violent from Afghanistan, a situation she attributes to mefloquine.

In Canada, the situation is special for a reason: even though the military announced a reassessment of the use of mefloquine this month, it still considers it a “front-line drug” for its soldiers. In the United States, by contrast, the drug’s risk profile led Special Forces to ban it completely as early as 2013, and it is only used as a last resort in the rest of the military.

Credible claims

Elspeth Ritchie was a psychiatrist in the United States Army and now works for the Veterans Health Administration in Washington. She looked at the role that mefloquine could have played in several tragedies, from Somalia to the events of Fort Braggs, North Carolina (four soldiers, three of whom were returning from Afghanistan and had consumed mefloquine, then had killed their wife).

In interview with Press, the Dre Ritchie explains that it is difficult to distinguish the effects of mefloquine from the symptoms caused by post-traumatic stress disorder. But she believes the claims of the veterans are credible. It also encourages the army to shed light on past events and to change its current practices.

“The Canadian military must take these issues very seriously. What she is doing right now is dangerous, ”says Ritchie.

Remington Nevin, who served 14 years as a medic in the US military and is now attached to Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, US, agrees.

“I believe that the use of mefloquine could be responsible for substantial mental health problems among the Canadian veteran population,” he told Press.

The Conservative Party and the NDP have called for “immediate action” to study the effects of mefloquine. But their demands, like those of the veterans, have so far been unsuccessful.

A controversial mission

Former Quebec paratrooper Claude Lalancette is not the only one with bad memories of Somalia. The Canadian mission was marked by slippages that tarnished the image of the Canadian Armed Forces and forced the holding of a commission of inquiry. The death of Shidane Arone, a Somali teenager tortured and then killed by Canadian soldiers, shocked public opinion in particular.

The role of mefloquine in these events, however, has never been examined. In interview with PressLieutenant-Colonel Andrew Currie, head of infectious diseases in the Canadian military, was very reluctant to reopen the investigation.

“I know that’s probably not what veterans want to hear, but it’s a very difficult question to clear up. Because of the complex nature of what was going on in Somalia, when you think about the leadership issues, in particular, that had been raised by the commission of inquiry […] I think it would be very difficult to go back and establish a correlation. ”

The American expert Remington Nevin, for his part, believes that the events in Somalia explain the fact that the Canadian army has so far refused to ban or restrict mefloquine among its soldiers, as have several other armies in the world.

“I am of the opinion, and it is a widely shared idea, that the reluctance of the Canadian military to adopt the policies of other countries on mefloquine reflects a very cynical attempt to avoid having to admit responsibility for practices dangerous in the past, ”he says.

Following the Somali skids, Private Kyle Brown was convicted of murder by court martial. The trial of his colleague Clayton Matchee had to be dropped because he inflicted neurological damage on himself while attempting to kill himself. Colonel Mark Boland had pleaded guilty to negligence charges.


Claude Lalancette