National

Malcolm Turnbull told to act on ADF drug investigation after UK apology

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been urged to ensure the Australian Defence Force conducts a transparent investigation of an antimalarial drug linked to suicide, hallucinations, depression and vertigo.

The calls come after the UK Ministry of Defence apologised to current and former soldiers for using the drug without proper risk assessments, acknowledging evidence of "serious and long-lasting adverse drug effects".

Major Stuart McCarthy is one of many current and former ADF personnel calling for a public inquiry into the drug mefloquine.
Major Stuart McCarthy is one of many current and former ADF personnel calling for a public inquiry into the drug mefloquine.  Photo: Brendon Thorne

Mefloquine, or Lariam, was trialled on Australian soldiers in 2001-02 and remains the military's third choice antimalarial, despite it being banned by US Special Forces in 2013.

The drug was given to ADF personnel for at least 14 years after the military first became concerned about serious side effects, according to previously classified documents.

Brigadier Tim Hodgetts, medical director for the UK Defence Medical Services, believes Australia has not banned the drug "because they are concerned about the wider external media concern".

Senior ADF members have also resisted banning the drug because it would prevent some deployment opportunities. The Department of Defence has insisted the drug is ethical as those who experience confusion, restlessness, depression or anxiety are urged to contact their medical officer immediately.

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A growing number of Australian veterans, including commandos and officers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, believe the drug trial left them with neuropsychiatric illnesses often misdiagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Soldiers who took part in the 2001-02 trial have described waking up with nightmares, severe anxiety, mood swings and memory lapses. Many were reluctant to report their symptoms to superiors fearing retribution.

"The platoon I was with was a mad house of emotions and there were constant arguments and irrational moments," said Heath Attard, who served with the fourth battalion in East Timor.

Many veterans are concerned the ADF may delete medical records from the 2001-02 trial once a 15-year holding period elapses in coming weeks. The records are held by the Army Malaria Institute, the same organisation that conducted the trial.

Charles Sturt University academic Dr Jane Quinn wrote to Mr Turnbull this week and urged him to intervene to ensure veterans were not robbed of an explanation. The federal opposition has also called on the ADF to maintain all records of the mefloquine trial.

But a Department of Defence spokesman said the Vice Chief of the Defence Force had "specifically instructed the Commander Joint Health to ensure that no trial records are to be disposed of".

Scott McCormick, a participant in the 2001-02 trials, said he waited nearly two months to receive his records after requesting them last year, and received them only after threatening to go to the media.

Mr McCormick, who was sent back to Australia after a reaction to the drug, said the forms were incomplete and missing a questionnaire assessing his return to Australia.

The Department of Defence spokesman also said the internal review of the trial conducted by the Inspector General of the ADF would be conducted in private, despite calls for transparency.

Opposition defence spokeswoman Gai Brodtmann said the government must ensure the ADF's investigation was rigorous, accountable and as transparent as possible.

"Labor will wait and see what the Inspector-General's investigation recommends, but if this serious issue is not given appropriate consideration we will look to establish a senate inquiry.

During a UK House of Commons committee hearing earlier this week, Conservative MP John Lancaster apologised to former and current soldiers on behalf of the Ministry of Defence.

"I and my department take extremely seriously claims that any drug has been inappropriately prescribed to service personnel and that serious and long-lasting adverse drug effects have been experienced," he said.

Dr Remington Nevin, a former major in the US Army Medical Corps who now lectures at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, said the apology should be a wake-up call for senior ADF members.

"This significant and long-overdue apology was wrestled from the minister only after he was compelled to testify before a parliamentary inquiry investigating the use and misuse of Lariam in the UK armed forces," he said.

Documents obtained by Fairfax Media in late November revealed Chief of Army Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell would not support a campaign against the drug, as it would deny deployment opportunities.

About 580 ADF members were prescribed mefloquine between 2000 and 2005. Another 1319 were prescribed as part of studies by the Army Malaria Institute in 2001 and 2002.

About 25 ADF personnel are now treated with mefloquine each year because they are intolerant to other anti-malarial medication, according to the ADF.

The Prime Minister's office was contacted for this story.