SAN DIEGO — 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.
Pills made him snap, says soldier
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.”
Military issues guidelines
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.
In written guidance on the drug last year, the military urged commanders to send for a medical evaluation anyone who showed behavioral changes after taking the drug, “especially ... if they carry a weapon” — a description of nearly all U.S. troops in Iraq.
“Delay could put the service member or your unit at risk,” the guide said.
Lariam is among the drugs recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for treatment and prevention of malaria, which kills about 1 million people worldwide each year. The drug’s New Jersey-based manufacturer, Roche Pharmaceuticals, points out that more than 30 million people worldwide have used Lariam over 20 years.
“There is no reliable scientific evidence that Lariam is associated with violent acts or criminal conduct,” Roche spokesman Terence Hurley wrote in an e-mailed response to questions.
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Side effects or combat stress disorders?
Further blurring the issue, the side effects associated with Lariam closely mirror symptoms of stress disorders related to combat, making diagnosis difficult.
Still, the pill has dedicated critics who believe it’s causing problems that are only beginning to be understood. A review by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs found 34 articles in medical journals about patients who took Lariam and became paranoid, psychotic or behaved strangely.
Within the civilian medical community, faith in the drug is mixed among doctors who specialize in tropical diseases. Two said they routinely prescribe it to travelers and believe troop complaints are overblown. Another criticized the military’s use of a drug with a known history of psychiatric complications.
Dr. G. Richard Olds, professor and chairman of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, is among Lariam’s critics.
“There’s a strong recommendation not to use Lariam for those who depend on fine motor skills,” he said. “Do you call firing an M-16 a fine motor skill? I do.”
Doctors at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego have diagnosed a disorder in the region of the brain that controls balance in 18 service members who took Lariam, among them Pogany.
Number of military prescriptions doubles
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.
Shortly after the March 2003 invasion, military doctors determined another malaria drug would do the job with fewer side effects. Around the same time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that doctors should give patients revised information, underscoring that some Lariam users experience severe anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations, depression and think about killing themselves.
Troops were supposed to receive those kinds of warnings, but several current and former soldiers interviewed for this story said they did not — and that they continued taking the drug in Iraq as recently as 2004. In that year, Phillips said, the number of prescriptions fell to 12,363.
Concerns about those taking the drug weren’t new. Some U.S. and Canadian forces deployed to Somalia in the early 1990s reported strange behavior. Lariam came up as a possible explanation after four Fort Bragg, N.C., soldiers killed their wives over 43 days in 2002. An Army probe ruled out Lariam, which was only prescribed to two of the soldiers.
Last year, the assistant defense secretary for health affairs ordered a review of the drug’s use based on troop concerns. Many who complained came from the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Carson, Colo. A base spokesman referred all questions to the Pentagon.
In a letter last month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., pressed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to release results of the Pentagon’s investigation. Feinstein has said there is enough evidence in the warnings from Lariam’s maker “to make the causal link between the drug and many of the serious adverse events experienced by service members.”
Military officials now concede Lariam wasn’t needed in Iraq — and not just because, according to the Pentagon, no malaria infections have been reported among U.S. forces there.
Troops sent to Kuwait in 1991 for Operation Desert Storm were given another anti-malarial, chloroquine. Before the Iraq invasion, the Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center in Fort Detrick, Md., which is charged with evaluating medical risks, was concerned that a deadly malaria strain in the region might have become resistant to chloroquine. They relied on reports from the World Health Organization and U.S. Special Operations units sent to northern Iraq.
In a series of reports before the invasion, the intelligence center extrapolated that — without bug spray, mosquito nets or other preventive measures — about 1 in 2,000 troops could pick up a deadly chloroquine-resistant malaria strain, according to a spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Michael Birmingham.
'There was never a need'
In March 2003, U.S. Central Command recommended the use of Lariam or another drug, doxycycline, in high-risk areas in Iraq. The idea was “to err on the side of caution,” rather than assume chloroquine would work, said Phillips of the Pentagon’s deployment medicine program.
Some commanders chose Lariam because it could be taken once a week rather than daily like doxycycline, whose main side effects included sensitivity to sunlight.
By July 2003, the military had determined the chloroquine-resistant strain wasn’t in Iraq. Chloroquine then became the drug of choice.
“That’s the saddest part,” said Laura Howell, a widow with two children after her husband killed himself in Colorado Springs, Colo. “There was never a need.”
Howell blames Lariam for what happened a few weeks after her husband, a veteran Green Beret, returned home. In March 2004, Chief Warrant Officer William Howell went from “normal to murderous” in a half-hour, his wife said, and ended his life in his front yard with a bullet to the head.
Connection to soldiers' suicides?
Critics of the drug in organizations such as Lariam Action USA and the National Gulf War Resources Center believe Lariam is connected to the surge in military suicides in 2003, when 23 people deployed to Iraq and Kuwait took their lives. The suicide rate dropped after Lariam’s use was halted in Iraq.
Former Army Spc. Don Dills and his wife say he grew anxious, paranoid and depressed after taking Lariam for seven months in Iraq. Dills, 22, says he “went crazy” on a family visit to Mississippi last year and wound up jailed for robbery. When Dills’ wife called her husband’s first sergeant about the arrest, he told her: Look into Lariam.
Dills, who like Pogany and Howell was based at Fort Carson, was kicked out of the military shortly after he wound up in a psychiatric ward for problems he and his wife contend are linked to Lariam.
“The bottom line is they know what’s going on,” said Elicia Dills, 25, of Pueblo, Colo. “They just don’t know how to deal with the can of worms they opened.”
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