This groundbreaking BW story by Joel Warner documented some of the serious — some would say fatal — side effects of the anti-malaria drug Lariam, which was regularly given to those serving in the U.S. military.
Former BW Editor Pamela White says the story was motivated by a desire to find out why veterans were coming back from military conflicts and committing psychotic, violent acts.
In his in-depth article, Warner tells a tale of two soldiers from Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Andrew Pogany and William Howell. The former went to Iraq, suffered what amounted to a severe breakdown, which his superiors attributed to stress, and he was sent home facing military charges of cowardly conduct as a result of fear. The latter also went to Iraq, came home, and after threatening his wife, shot himself.
The common denominator among Pogany and Howell, and scores of other soldiers who had extreme, often violent reactions to their service? They had taken Lariam.
Pogany contacted Howell’s widow, and they began to put two and two together.
In his article, Warner also profiles B. Meredith Burke, who traveled to Nigeria, took Lariam to protect against malaria, and upon her return had strange urges to walk through space and jump out the window. She began collecting horror stories about the drug and, in 1997, founded Lariam Action USA. Even the drug’s manufacturer, Roche, listed a long list of possible side effects, including suicide, on the label, but pharmacies weren’t required to include the entire list, and the Centers for Disease Control kept recommending its use, in part based on a Rochesponsored study that showed the rate of serious side effects to be only one in 10,000.
But competing studies, and a United Press International report in 2002, began to raise serious questions about the drug’s side effects, including increased rates of depression and suicide.
However, the military continued prescribing it, and it kept appearing on the medical records of soldiers involved in violent episodes. The rate of soldier suicides spiked. In a congressional hearing, a Department of Defense (DOD) official downplayed the possible role of Lariam.
White recalls that even though the military knew of the dangerous side effects, “it refused to acknowledge it or admit it.”
And the drug was not always recorded on soldiers’ medical records, even when they had taken it.
Pogany was sent back to Iraq, was given Lariam again, and after suffering severe side effects, visited a DOD doctor who had witnessed the alarming trend among his patients who had taken the drug. He later denied attributing the problems to Lariam, reportedly acknowledging to one soldier that it was due to pressure from above.
The charges against Pogany, which had been reduced when he put up a fight, were dropped entirely.
A Roche spokesperson insisted to BW that there was no credible scientific evidence of any correlation between the drug and suicide or other violent acts.
But the community of soldiers who shared similar stories continued to grow, and yet the military continued to prescribe it. In 2009, the Army dropped the drug as its preferred protection against malaria, but continued to use it in limited circumstances.
The Pentagon initiated a review of the drug last year after a soldier with pre-existing brain injuries took Lariam and allegedly massacred 17 civilians in Afghanistan.
Warner’s story won a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.