Luke McIlveen and Ian McPhedran, 1300 troops took ‘guinea pig’ drug, The Sunday Telegraph, 31 October 2004.
THE Army has admitted more than 1300 troops who served in East Timor were given an anti-malaria drug with potentially devastating side effects.
Army chief Peter Leahy was forced to disclose the real number of troops used as guinea pigs, after an investigation by The Sunday Mail found hundreds of them suffered depression and psychotic episodes as a result of taking Larium.
Brisbane legal firm Quinn and Scattini is launching a class action against the army on behalf of present and former personnel who took Larium while in East Timor.
It can also be revealed that hundreds of Australian soldiers in Timor were used to test another anti-malarial drug being developed by the US Army.
Troops were told the mystery drug would leave calcium deposits on their eyes, but were assured these would “disappear after about six months”.
Lieutenant-General Leahy’s account of the clinical trials done on 1351 soldiers contradicts that of the military’s medical chief, Air Commodore Tony Austin, who said the number of those on Larium was in the “dozens rather than hundreds”.
“All drugs have some side effects and no drug is risk-free, but the risk of death from malaria is much greater than the risks associated with taking the anti-malarial drugs prescribed in the ADF (Australian Defence Forces),” Lt-Gen Leahy said in a signal sent to every member of the army. Studies showed the soldiers from the 1 RAR, 2 RAR and 4 RAR battalions suffered nothing more serious than “sleep disturbance”.
More than 250 present and former soldiers are suing the army for loss of income, mental trauma and family breakdown in one of the biggest class actions against the military.
Quinn and Scattini also plans to launch a product liability suit in the US Supreme Court against the manufacturers of Larium, pharmaceutical giant Roche.
Australian troops were also signed up to trial the unauthorised malaria drug Tafenoquine, which left soldiers with calcium deposits in their eyes.
The drug was not approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Soldiers from Townsville-based 1 RAR battalion were told the research was being done for the US Army and health giant GlaxoSmithKline.
“We know from the examinations in the soldiers that deposits disappear after about six months,” senior army medical officer Lt Colonel Peter Nasveld said in a letter to troops after the trials.
Hundreds of soldiers have come forward to tell of their experience with Larium while serving in East Timor between 1999 and 2003.
Army chiefs in Canberra claim the trials were voluntary, but soldiers have described how they were ordered to take the drug or stay at home.
Private Jason Rule, who served in the 1RAR battalion in East Timor in 1999, said his army career was ruined by the Larium pill he took weekly for six months.
“We were in no doubt that if we didn’t take the Larium we would not be going to East Timor,” he said.
Fellow 1 RAR Private Duncan Carter, who did two tours of East Timor before leaving the army in March, said he suffered anger and stomach problems, and paranoia.
“We have to speak out, because the army is not going to address the problem unless it is forced to take responsibility,” he said.
Lt-Gen Peter Leahy denied Larium was to blame for the severe problems suffered.
“The studies concluded that mefloquine (the main ingredient in Larium) is a safe and effective means of preventing malaria for the ADF under operational field conditions,” he said.