For many years, British service personnel have been treated with a controversial anti-malaria drug despite warnings issued by its manufacturer. The Commons defence select committee, of which I am a member, has heard from scientists, lawyers and servicemen to try to understand why.
Malaria is a fatal disease and requires a robust defence. Lariam was developed in the 1970s and has proved very effective. Like all drugs it comes with side-effects but in this case they are mental health problems.
According to the manufacturers, it should never be given to anyone with a mental health condition; indeed it should only be prescribed after an individual assessment by a doctor.
Yet our military handed them out like confetti; issued them with rations and bullets from the stores. Countless personnel have been affected, leading to years of trauma and, for some, even forced confinement in secure mental health units.
One witness from the Ministry of Defence told us: “You can’t link mental health to a direct cause.” Another said: “I did issue a directive for individual risk assessments to be done but I’ve no record of them being done.”
Our committee’s report on Lariam, published today, is a long-overdue recognition of the problem. It’s only because I’m an over-privileged, irritating backbencher that we got it published in the face of a lacklustre response when the families of those affected raised concerns.
It highlights the wider problem of our military simply not paying enough attention to looking after our servicemen and women. Until we learn, as other countries did a long time ago, that proper care of our human resources is as vital any other component of fighting power, we will continue to make similar tragic mistakes.
Speak to Major General Alastair Duncan’s wife. Ask her if this matters. Her husband would tell you but he is currently a shadow of his former self as he fights for his sanity in a secure mental health unit in Somerset after taking Lariam. I hope the MoD now acknowledges its role in his downfall and looks after him, along with all the others.