MCpl. Clayton Matchee in the early 90s. Photo courtesy

People’s horror stories of a military-issued antimalarial drug have made a mark on the Armed Forces policy on the drug’s use, but researchers and advocates say a report released this week does a disservice to those who may have suffered from the controversial drug’s side effects.

Since the early 1990s, Mefloquine has been used by more than 18,000 soldiers on deployment in high-malaria areas like Somalia, Rwanda, and Afghanistan.

With the release of the new report, called the “Surgeon General’s Review on the Operational Use of Mefloquine,” comes a statement that the drug will now be used by soldiers only if it’s requested, and the Armed Forces has been cautioned that large-scale deployments “within a short period of time can pose challenges for adequately screening individuals” for conditions that increase the risks associated with mefloquine use.

“We are recommending mefloquine as a second line drug only, because of the unique operational environment that we work in,” Brigadier-General Colin MacKay, Surgeon General said in a statement.

MacKay started preparing his review “on the Operational Use of Mefloquine” in December when facing mounting pressure from the media and anti-mefloquine advocates like Marj Matchee.

The Meadow Lake woman maintains the drug played a hand in her husband Clayton’s mental state when he and fellow soldier Kyle Brown killed a teen captive while deployed in Somalia in the early 1990s. A world-renowned mefloquine expert, Dr. Remington Nevin, has said Clayton’s symptoms before and during deployment are consistent with the side effects of mefloquine and warrant consideration.

The Armed Forces says the large body of evidence used in their report “suggests mefloquine is not consistently associated with an excess overall risk of adverse effects, nor is it associated with an excess risk of not being able to perform occupational duties.”

This comes in spite of research by Nevin and others, finding that mefloquine has high rates of negative side effects, and in spite of public testimony from high-profile names like Romeo Dallaire and Greg Passey saying they’ve seen and experienced the drug’s serious effects while overseas.

Marj says the review acts as a denial to people whose lives have been impacted by the drug.

“The government hasn’t reached out one bit to help, only keep burying it. It’s just suffering more and more,” she says.

“We are still waiting from an acknowledgment from the Canadian government that the drug has adverse affected the health of Canadian veterans, we are still waiting for an organized outreach program, and we are still waiting for the government to fund truly independent research on the topic.”

The report mentions the nationally-shamed Somalia peacekeeping mission Clayton was on, because it was the first ever to see large-scale Canadian military use of mefloquine, but the names of any individuals involved are absent as are the details of inadequate or non-existent pre-screening for soldiers. Marj still feels the military is refusing to take responsibility for that past.

In the years since Somalia, researchers like Nevin have delved into mefloquine’s effects, some saying there are long-term PTSD-like neurological effects associated with its use.

Meanwhile, Health Canada issued a news release the same day as the Armed Forces report, saying it has only 27 Canadian reports of “adverse events that met Health Canada’s criteria for being categorized as long-lasting or potentially long-lasting.”

Including international numbers, Health Canada says its received 61 total reports that “have a possible link between the use of mefloquine and the long-lasting or permanent adverse events.”

In effect, Health Canada says it “has not found conclusive evidence that mefloquine can cause long-lasting and permanent neurological and psychiatric adverse events.”

In response to these findings, Nevin tweeted the following: “DND says jump—Health Canada asks how high. Nothing’s changed since regulators turned a blind eye to DND’s illegal use of mefloquine in 1992.”

In Matchee’s eyes, Health Canada’s numbers are impossibly low.