WHEN you sign up to fight for your country, you accept you have to put your life on the line. In recent years, scores of those who have served in dangerous or inhospitable places haven’t made it home. To them we are grateful.
Those such as the 41 who were killed in 14 years of the Afghanistan War, faced traditional opponents. That enemy carried weapons. They laid roadside bombs. And the horrors of what many experience last well beyond deployment and into an unsettled civilian life. Many, as revealed by government figures last week, have taken their own lives.
But PTSD isn’t the only hazard that can cause impairment in our Australian veterans. Since the late 1980s, 5000 personnel were administered two antimalarial drugs — mefloquine and the experimental tafenoquine — when sent on military service in countries with a malaria risk.
Many of them have since suffered an illness classified as an Acquired Brain Injury. There is sturdy scientific proof that ABI can occur after treatment with mefloquine. Scientists from the US military research institute that developed the drugs found that mefloquine was able to cause a “lasting or permanent” brain injury. Other scientists at the same institute found tafenoquine, an experimental drug that has not been registered for sale anywhere in the world, “is more neurotoxic than mefloquine”.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in August, on the evidence of an alarming veteran suicide rate, that “we have to go beyond the memorials and the monuments and focus on the men and women, the real challenges they face, ensuring that they are supported”. This week, Veterans’ Affairs Minister Dan Tehan and Health Minister Sussan Ley are expected to launch the government’s veteran suicide prevention initiative. With more than 60 veterans having taken their own lives this year, this response is welcome.
Mefloquine veteran Chris Stiles begs senior Australian government officials for help, before ending his own life.
Turnbull’s words are encouraging, but there is a glaring omission from his government’s response thus far — an outreach and treatment program for veterans affected by exposure to mefloquine and tafenoquine. Although Defence has recognised that mefloquine can have long-term health effects, Defence and Veterans’ Affairs have initiated no consultation to ensure the advice they are providing to those affected is suitable. Yet Australian veterans who suffer serious, chronic illness since their exposure to the drugs are in the hundreds.
Difficulties in correctly diagnosing this type of brain injury have meant that few of those affected have been able to access the appropriate rehabilitation, medical and other support services. Most who have sought medical help have been diagnosed and medicated for PTSD or other mental illnesses without having been referred to brain injury specialists. That misdiagnosis has led to further disabling drug reactions, family breakdowns, homelessness and suicide.
During this year’s election, the government committed to formal consultation with affected veterans and their families to address these concerns. Despite news of an “outreach” event in Townsville this month, the consultation has not happened. Discussions with senior Veterans’ Affairs medical officers indicated that “consultation was not required”. Meanwhile, Defence and Veterans’ Affairs officials have trivialised the nature and extent of the problems, unfairly suggesting those affected are exaggerating or inventing their symptoms.
The numerous diagnoses of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depression and anxiety, seizures, hallucinations and psychosis, suicide attempts and suicide indicate this is a serious issue. Equally serious steps need to be taken by the government to embrace those suffering and give them suitable assistance.
Providing the right assistance is not hard. There are existing ABI outreach and rehabilitation programs available in every state that receive significant federal funding. Indeed, some fortunate veterans who have persisted to obtain the right treatment are already receiving those services. Sadly, these are in single figures.
If Turnbull is serious about addressing veteran suicides — and there is no reason to believe he isn’t — he should now direct both ministers to make those programs available to all veterans who were exposed to these neurotoxic drugs during their service to the country.
Stuart McCarthy is an army officer who served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Ethiopia and Eritrea and Bougainville. He is undergoing rehabilitation for an acquired brain injury after being exposed to mefloquine and tafenoquine.
*This article was first published in the Herald Sun on 7 December 2016.