Why Canadians need to hear about mefloquine and the damage it has done to our troops.
I think it would be fair to say that the news cycle in Canada will be fixed for about the next 9 or 10 months on the story of Justin Trudeau’s spectacular political implosion. It is almost guaranteed to dominate the headlines in one form or another every day between now and the election, and this means that a lot of things won’t be getting covered, like mefloquine.
What is mefloquine?
Also known by the brand name Lariam, mefloquine is a drug used for the prevention and/or treatment of malaria, in particular a type of malaria that is resistant to a drug called chloroquine. It was developed by the United States military in the 1960’s and testing began in the 1970’s. It was ultimately brought to market in France in 1985 by pharmaceutical giant Hoffmann la Roche, before being approved for use in the united States by the FDA in 1989.
When and how did Canadian troops start taking mefloquine?
According to the Surgeon General’s Task Force on mefloquine, Canadian officials were first given mefloquine in 1991 and 1992 in Cambodia and Africa under the provisions of a drug study by the manufacturer, Roche.
Troops bound for Somalia in December 1992 were also given the drug, however they would not be a part of the study, since the guidelines of the study were not compatible with the operational requirement to deploy to Somalia. Prior to being given the medication, Canadian troops were advised of the possible negative reactions of the drug, including the possibility of psychiatric side effects such as hallucinations. They were not told however that they were being given a drug that had yet to be approved in Canada, and were not given the appropriate form to sign that would have given their informed consent.
What happened after they started taking it?
Soon after it was approved in 1985, adverse reaction reports were starting to come in, documenting some disturbing psychological reactions to the drug. These included such things as nightmares, hallucinations, severe depression, and episodes of psychosis.
Almost immediately after they arrived in theatre, the men of 2 CDO began experiencing similar side effects. At the time, this was not reported, and it is only in the years since then that many former soldiers have come forward with details of their experience in Somalia. Many have said that they began suffering the terrifying effects of the drug shortly after they arrived, and for some, their ordeal would begin after taking the first dose of mefloquine.
Vivid nightmares would often haunt them, and many were affected by the rapid onset of severe anxiety or depression. Men were suffering from visual and auditory hallucinations, psychosis, and delusions, often violent in nature. Sleep disturbances would often occur, such as insomnia or sleepwalking. The commanding officer of the mission, Lt.Col. Carol Mathieu, was on one occasion reported to be outside the wire in the middle of the night, naked, and waving his pistol in the air while rambling incoherently. Something many don’t stop to consider is the fact that officers could be affected too. They also had to take the drug, and apart from military rank, were no different than the men they were in charge of. Having a commission doesn’t give one blanket immunity from any and all diseases or syndromes, though some officers might tell you otherwise.
There is little doubt in my mind that the tragedy in Somalia would not have happened were it not for mefloquine. The Somalia Commission focused on the culture and discipline withing the Canadian Armed Forces, in particular the Canadian Airborne Regiment. It is true that there were unsavory elements within 2 CDO, elements that by all accounts held racist views. Let me be clear that I do not think that every member of the CAR or 2 CDO was a racist, and that these views were only held by certain individuals.
But even if we were to assume that every one of those men held racist beliefs, they were first and foremost professionals. Those men were too well trained, and their commitment to duty would have meant that this would never have happened under normal circumstances.
Many of the men on that mission continue to suffer to this day, and in the years since then, thousands of Canadian soldiers have been given mefloquine prior to their deployments. Canadian Forces were ordered to take mefloquine during the course of 14 different operations, starting in Somalia with Operation Deliverance, and most recently in Afghanistan (Operation Apollo). Years after their last dose of mefloquine, many of these veterans continue to suffer from the nightmarish side effects of this drug.
The long road to justice
It is only in the last decade that information about mefloquine has really started to come to light, and getting it into the public has been an uphill battle for those trying to raise awareness of this issue. As so often happens in the media, many stories that need to be told are left to languish on the back burner, while the scandal of the day eats up the column space.
Across Canada and the United States, groups advocating for those affected by “quinism” have started to form, and a number of class-action lawsuits are pending against governments and the manufacturer of mefloquine, Roche. A call has also gone out to reconvene the Somalia Commission of Inquiry, so that the truth can come out, and the men involved can have their reputations restored. Every soldier harmed by mefloquine as well as their families, deserves to be compensated for their ordeal, and deserves to know why their government would do this to them in the first place.
In the weeks and months to come, I will be continuing my investigation into mefloquine, and publishing what I have found, or in some cases haven’t found. I will be interviewing experts in the field, as well as those affected by the drug, both the victims and their families, and you will follow along with me as I try to contact the FDA medical officer who recommended mefloquine’s approval in 1987.
In the meantime, I’m asking you to help out. Contact the Government of Canada and ask that the Somalia Commission be re-opened, find out whatever you can online, spread the word far and wide. Above all, remember that these people put on the uniform of their country, were badly injured during the course of the employment, and were subsequently tossed aside and forgotten by their government. Help me let then know that they aren’t forgotten, and that Canadians won’t let them down in their time of need.