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Senior ADF officials defend use of antimalarial mefloquine to Senate hearing

Senior ranks of the Australian Defence Force have defended the use of antimalarial drug mefloquine, which veterans have linked to anxiety attacks, insomnia, vertigo and suicidal thoughts.

Mefloquine remains the third choice antimalarial for the ADF despite it being banned from prescription to US Special Forces in 2013 and the subject of a British House of Commons defence select committee hearing. It is also under investigation by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force.

In recent months, numerous veterans have told Fairfax Media of their trauma after taking the drug, which they say scarred them with permanent psychological damage and hallucinations.

Mefloquine, or Lariam, was trialled on Australian soldiers in 2001-02 and been prescribed to more than 1800 current and former ADF members.

It was given to personnel for at least 14 years after the military first became concerned about serious side effects, according to previously classified documents.Vice Admiral Ray Griggs told a senate estimates hearing on Wednesday night he was not aware of the Inspector-General's progress and had deliberately kept himself in the dark.

He said there had been a seven month sustained media campaign against the use of the drug, which had concerned many veterans.

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"The Inspector General is inquiring into allegations that there may have been coercion of people signing up for the trials in 2001-2002, so it's not a general inquiry into the use of mefloquine," he said.

He said the release of the report would be "dependent on the outcomes and ministerial discretion". Defence Minister Marise Payne said she had not received a copy of the report and was not aware of its genesis.

In January, 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".

Conservative MP Johnny Mercer, an Afghanistan veteran and a member of the defence select committee, told Fairfax Media a similar inquiry could be necessary in Australia if veterans remained dissatisfied by Defence explanations.

"I think Australia should confirm it is using Lariam within the accepted guidelines and if veterans feel that it has not been, then they should have an outlet like the inquiry we have had in the United Kingdom to assess the scale of the problem," he said.

"The British Ministry of Defence has apologised to any service men and women who were not given an individual risk assessments before using the drug as demanded by its manufacturers."

But Ms Payne said the government had no intention of establishing an inquiry.

The federal opposition has raised the prospect of launching a senate inquiry unless the Inspector-General's report revealed a rigorous and accountable investigation.

"The key difference between the UK and Australia is that we have a tiered approach to the prescription of antimalarials and mefloquine is our third line drug and used quite rarely," Vice Admiral Griggs said.

"In the UK there is no tier [system] and is used much more extensively and a number of the issues around the UK inquiry are centre on whether people were given the appropriate amount of information."

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