Soldiers are to meet this month over rising concerns about the mental health of those prescribed controversial medication linked to aggression, depression and suicide, the Sunday Tribune can reveal.
The anti-malarial drug Lariam, which was dropped by the US military last year due to concerns about its health risks, is still administered to those in the Defence Forces.
Tony Moore, a former private in the Defence Forces for 25 years, says his and other people's lives have been destroyed as a result of taking the drug on foreign missions.
Later this month, those with serious concerns as to the effects on their health are to meet to discuss the issue.
The Defence Forces said that, while side-effects have been reported by soldiers, Lariam remains the most effective and suitable anti-malarial drug.
According to the American Army Times, the US military's withdrawal of the drug "recognises the concerns about inadvertent prescription of mefloquine (the generic name for Lariam) to soldiers who should not take it".
The drug has been found to induce side-effects in as many as 25% of users, including suicidal tendencies, anxiety, aggression, paranoia, nightmares, ringing in the ears, depression, panic attacks, hallucinations and psychotic behaviour.
Moore has been encouraging contact among Irish soldiers past and present who have had problems and says that more and more are coming forward.
"Five lads came onto the website to talk about it and there are other lads who won't talk about it online but who want to talk about it," he said. "I have gone off them [the medication] four-and-a-half years. I got hallucinations in Chad. Your muscles would cramp up. You get headaches, diarrhoea."
The father of three, who gets on average two to three hours' sleep a night, says he was also contacted by the wife of a soldier who said she was having difficulties dealing with his condition.
"When I took it I really didn't know I had a problem. What happened was my hands started to swell and I reported it to the doctor but we both thought it was down to the heat," he said.
"I used to be physically fit, always running and training, but I can't do that now. I get worn out and very tired. Anyone who knows me would know that I am a workaholic and now I can't even hammer a nail into the wall.
"I have gone to the Defence Forces doctors and they sent me from doctor to doctor and no one will accept that it is the side-effects of Lariam."
There is a history of widespread concern over the use of the drug. Many doctors are reluctant to prescribe it and it has been the subject of international studies. One, carried out on rats in 2006 by the Walter Reed Institution of Research, found that its use prompted sleep disorders and possible permanent damage to the central nervous system.
In a statement, the Defence Forces said: "Every medicine has the potential to produce side-effects but contracting malaria can be fatal. In the case of Lariam, side-effects have been reported by a small number of troops prescribed the drug. However, the Defence Forces undertake a number of initiatives to identify, and where necessary, treat any potential side effects as early as possible."
These include screening personnel for suitability, ongoing monitoring, and beginning courses three weeks ahead of departure, the time period deemed most likely to produce side-effects.
It further noted that the drug is approved by the Irish Medicines Board, which has stated: "The benefit-risk profile for the product remains acceptable."
MANUFACTURED by the pharmaceutical company Hoffman La Roche, Lariam has been prescribed to millions of people around the world since 1985, although health experts are concerned that its potential side-effects are not made clear to users.
In an extensive investigation into the drug in 2002, United Press International found, after trawling through La Roche documents, an increasing number of reports of suicide linked to its product. An internal La Roche report in 1994 found that, because Lariam can lead to depression and depression to suicide, "a causal link to Lariam can in theory not be ruled out".
Suicides and attempted suicides linked to the drug were often reported among people with no history of mental illness. "Lariam users are five times more likely to report having mental problems that could lead to suicide than those taking a different drug – the antibiotic doxycycline – also used to prevent malaria," the investigation noted.
However, La Roche has continually denied there is any evidence showing the drug led directly to suicides.
The substance was discovered by the US military shortly after the Vietnam War in a drive to combat malaria. Susan Rose, an academic at George Washington University who has represented people suing the drug company, said: "There have been a number of cases of suicide both in the US and abroad that are clearly associated with the use of Lariam."