What is Lariam, and Why is Its Use in the Army So Controversial?

By Aatif Sulleyman on at

If you saw ‘Lariam’ trending this morning and chose to ignore it because you assumed it was the name of an Instagram star or teen pop sensation, you made a bad, but entirely forgivable, call. It’s actually a brand name for the drug mefloquine (C17H16F6N2O), which is used to treat malaria.

So why’s it getting so much attention? Malaria bars aren’t going to be the next big thing in the UK are they? Fortunately not. The news concerns British troops serving abroad, who have complained of experiencing particularly nasty side-effects after taking the drug.

These include hallucinations, nightmares, severe depression and all manner of psychological issues. Malaria, meanwhile, can trigger fever, vomiting, diarrhoea and death. The grass is always greener.

The Commons defence committee is now arguing that Lariam should only be prescribed to soldiers as a last resort, and has criticised the Ministry of Defence for its lax attitude to concerns. Though Roche, the manufacturer of Lariam, clearly highlights the potential risks associated with it and recommends individual assessments for users of the drug, these safety measures have by and large been ignored in the military.

Lariam isn’t the main anti-malarial drug used by the armed forces, but over 17,000 British military personnel are said to have been prescribed Lariam at least once between 2007 and 2015. Over 100,000 were instead given Malarone, Doxycycline or another anti-malarial drug.

The dangers appear to be so well-known that a number of troops are claimed to have preferred to ditch the drug completely than risk the side-effects, and according to retired Lt Col Andrew Marriott between 25% and 35% of personnel who'd taken Lariam -- many of whom plan to sue the MoD -- suffered side-effects.

The MoD is currently considering the report's recommendations and will respond in due course. [BBC, Guardian]

Image: Mick Høy via Flickr