Few remember the grisly summer of 2002 when four Fort Bragg soldiers’ wives were murdered within six weeks of each other and the malaria drug, Lariam, widely prescribed to troops deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq, was suspected as a factor in at least some of the killings.
The label on the malaria drug, developed by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in the 1970s after another malaria drug used in Vietnam failed, warns of psychosis, hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, aggression, tremors, confusion, abnormal dreams and suicide.
Military officials blamed the Fort Bragg murders on marital problems and combat stress—explanations already heard with Army staff sergeant Robert Bales, suspected of killing 16 Afghan civilians this month, 17 by some reports.
But soon after the Fort Bragg killings, other soldiers given Lariam spoke out. A 27-year old Air Force Staff Sgt. named Kevin based in Little Rock who only gave his first name, told United Press International he too experienced delusions, hallucinations, black outs and frightening flashes of anger after taking just five doses of Lariam.
“These guys who killed their wives and then themselves [near Fort Bragg]. If they were having a reaction to Lariam I can totally understand why they did it. The patience level goes way down. You feel confused, and the anger and frustration level goes way up,” Kevin said. “The only reason I have not done anything to myself yet is because I think it is a one-way ticket to hell.”
Even lawmakers doubted Lariam’s safety. “Our military said there is no problem with [Lariam] because they developed it,” remarked Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., when an Army report about the Fort Bragg killings discounted Lariam as a factor. “The hardest thing to do is develop a drug and then admit there is a problem.”
One side effect of Lariam can be abrupt personality changes. A seventeen-year marine veteran serving in Afghanistan in 2009 and given Lariam, “went from being loving on the phone, to saying he never wanted to see me and our daughter again,” said his wife in an interview. “He said not to even bother coming to the airport to meet him, because he would walk right past us.” When the couple did reunite, her husband was frail and thin, and “the whites of his eyes were brown,” says the wife. The formerly competent drill instructor became increasingly unpredictable, suicidal, and violent and was incarcerated in the brig at Camp Lejeune for assault in 2011.
In her nonﬁction book, Murder in Baker Company, Cilla McCain also speculates whether the use of Lariam might explain or partially explain the brutal actions of the soldiers accused in the death of Army Specialist Richard Davis in 2003.
The Air Force bans pilots from using Lariam and the Army says it is substituting a safer drug, but the Navy and Marine Corps have actually increased prescriptions for Lariam, the Associated Press reported last year. And, “numbers could be higher still because prescriptions filled overseas are frequently not counted.” The effects of Lariam can last for “weeks, months, and even years,” after it’s stopped, warns the VA. The drug “should not be given to anyone with symptoms of a brain injury, depression or anxiety disorder,” reported Army Times, which describes “many troops who have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.”
A medical presentation about Lariam by Army major Dr. Remington Nevin on YouTube links Lariam to seizures, PTSD effects, extreme and unexpected reactions and probable permanent brain toxicity. Like “angel dust,” Lariam is associated with incredible acts of violence and self-mutilation, marked by depersonalization—the feeling that someone else is committing the acts—and tissue binding in which the drug remains stored in the body long after it is taken. Lariam, not only intensifies PTSD, it intensifies PTSD drugs and makes them more dangerous, says the presentation.
How widespread is the use of Lariam among troops? Why is it in use at all?
Martha Rosenberg’s first book, Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks, and Hacks Pimp the Public Health, has just been released by Prometheus Books.