Australian Defence Force personnel who were part of a controversial antimalarial drug trial will receive a free health check, despite a Senate inquiry refusing to draw a definitive link between the drugs and their severe psychiatric symptoms.
Mefloquine was first used on Australian soldiers in East Timor nearly 20 years ago, after 64 Australian soldiers contracted malaria during the first five months of an international peacekeeping mission, potentially indicating resistance to the preferred antimalarial medication doxycycline.
It has been used on up to 2000 soldiers since and remains the third choice antimalarial for the Australian military, despite being banned from prescription to US Special Forces in 2013.
But Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration has warned that patients with a history of depression, anxiety disorders or other psychiatric illness should not be prescribed the drug.
The trial also prescribed soldiers with the antimalarial tafenoquine, even though it was not approved for use in Australia at the time. It was finally approved for use in Australia last year.
Major Stuart McCarthy broke ranks in 2015 to condemn the continued use of mefloquine.
He was was prescribed the drug while serving in Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2001 and has since suffered depression, vertigo, hearing and memory problems and cognitive impairment.
One veteran said the drug made his tour "like living in a heavily armed lunatic asylum" with instances of deep depression, vivid nightmares, anxiety attacks and debilitating paranoia.
Other veterans have felt they have been wrongly diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder because of the drugs.
However the Senate inquiry last year said, according to the "weight of evidence" presented, long term problems as a result of taking mefloquine are rare and there is no compelling evidence that tafenoquine causes long term effects.
Although the cause of symptoms was in dispute, it did conclude did conclude "that their physical and mental symptoms are real and that they require assistance".
Following the inquiry, the federal government has committed $2.1 million to a new initiative to support veterans who are concerned about having taken the anti-malarial drugs mefloquine or tafenoquine.
"This initiative will deliver a national program that will provide concerned veterans with the option to receive a comprehensive health assessment with a general practitioner to identify service-related illness, disease and injury," a spokeswoman said.
"Where appropriate, the veteran will be referred for further specialist assessment, treatment and support."
Department of Veterans Affairs secretary Liz Cosson said she'd met with quite a few veterans who were prescribed the drugs who felt "aggrieved" by the process.
"I know the veteran community are not feeling like they're getting the right treatment so that's what the health checks are all about," Ms Cosson said.
- Veterans who require a health check can call 1800 MEFLOQUINE (1800 633 567).