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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Medical Nightmare 

As if things weren't bad enough for the troops in Iraq, the Pentagon has been prescribing an anti-malarial drug whose side effects include "severe anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations, depression," and suicidal thoughts:
As a volunteer firefighter, Georg-Andreas Pogany had seen disfigured bodies pulled from wrecked cars. But something very different happened when the Army interrogator saw the mangled remains of an Iraqi soldier.

He became panicked, disoriented and that night reached for both his loaded pistol and rifle as he thought he saw the enemy bursting into his room. Pogany asked his superiors for help; the Army packed him home to face charges of cowardice — the first such case since Vietnam.

None of it made sense to Pogany until he learned more about the white pills the Army gave him each week to prevent malaria.

The drug’s manufacturer warned of rare but severe side effects including paranoia and hallucinations. It became his defense: The pills made him snap. The Army dropped all charges, a spokesman later saying that Pogany “may have a medical problem that requires care and treatment.”

Pogany is among the current or former troops sent to Iraq who claim that Lariam, the commercial name for the anti-malarial drug mefloquine, provoked disturbing and dangerous behavior. The families of some troops blame the drug for the suicides of their loved ones. Though the evidence is largely anecdotal, their stories have raised alarm in Congress, and the Pentagon has stopped giving out a pill it probably never needed to give to tens of thousands of troops in Iraq in the first place.

“What are we doing giving drugs that cause hallucinations, confusion, psychotic behavior to people that carry weapons and hold secret clearances?” asked Pogany, 33, who is now seeking a medical discharge. “It doesn’t pass the common-sense test.”

The U.S. military, which developed the drug after the Vietnam War, maintains that Lariam is safe and effective, though officials have expressed some concern and the military tells its pilots not to take Lariam . . . .

The Pentagon’s records show the number of Lariam prescriptions issued to active-duty personnel nearly doubled from 18,704 in 2002 to 36,451 the next year, said Lt. Col. Stephen Phillips, a program director for deployment medicine. Since prescriptions issued at remote locations aren’t counted, actual numbers may be higher.

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