Alberta soldiers who took 'distressing' malaria drug sought for lawsuit

Alberta soldiers who believe they were harmed by anti-malarial medication offered during oversea deployments are being recruited for a massive legal case against the federal government.

Countless soldiers suffered terrible side-effects in 'botched clinical trial'

A Canadian flag patch sewn onto green army fatigues.
In the 1990s, it was common for Canadian soldiers to be prescribed a controversial anti-malarial drug called mefloquine. (Frédéric Pepin/Radio-Canada)

Alberta soldiers who believe they were harmed by anti-malarial medication commonly prescribed during overseas  deployments in the 1990s are being recruited for a massive legal case against the federal government.

Some soldiers who took the drug mefloquine complain it caused long-term brain damage and lasting side-effects, including night terrors, mood swings, panic attacks, hallucinations and suicidal thoughts.

Two law firms, which represent military veterans planning to launch legal action against the government, estimate that thousands of Canadian soldiers may be eligible for compensation.

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'You did not have a choice'

"Some of the most common side-effects — and most distressing side-effects — are the vivid nightmares and hallucinations, coupled with anxiety and paranoia," said Paul Miller, a partner with the Toronto-based law firm Howie Sacks & Henry.

"Some of them, when I asked them to describe their dreams, they couldn't. They just broke down and started crying."

Howie Sacks & Henry, a personal injury firm, has partnered with another Toronto firm, Waddell Phillips, to bring forward individual claims for any member of the Canadian Armed Forces who was prescribed mefloquine.  

The firm is holding an information session at the Kingsway Legion in Edmonton on Saturday as part of a national effort to find former mefloquine users.

Soldiers were part of a clinical trial that didn't follow proper procedure and they deserve compensation, Miller said. The lawsuits are expected to be filed in the coming weeks.

"With this medication, the drug manufacturer had disclosed that if you have certain side-effects, you must report them right away so you can discontinue the medication. But the soldiers were never told that, and that's a huge problem," Miller said in an interview Friday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"Veterans have told me, if you did not take the medication, you could be court-martialled. You did not have a choice."

In 2016, Health Canada revised the drug's prescribing information. The updated label warns that those experiencing side-effects such as anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations, thoughts of suicide and psychotic behaviour must stop using the drug. Side-effects can persist for years or become permanent in some people, it adds.

In response to the growing scrutiny around mefloquine, the Canadian Armed Forces launched a review of the drug's use, publishing a report in June 2017.

It found that it should not be prescribed as the first option for soldiers being deployed to malaria-affected regions.

Canadian veteran John Dowe experienced nightmares, insomnia and other side-effects after taking mefloquine in Somalia in 1993.

John Dowe, a plaintiff in the pending lawsuits, will speak at Saturday's town hall meeting in north Edmonton. Dowe, who served with the Canadians Forces from 1990 to 2000, took mefloquine tablets while serving in 1992 with the now-infamous Canadian Airborne Regiment in Somalia.

He said the adverse effects of the drugs were immediate and troubling, and that he still feels them to this day.

"That tour was supposed to undergo a clinical drug trial with Health Canada and the Department of National Defence," said Dowe, who has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I suffered acute symptoms of hyper-vigilance, anxiety, disassociation, insomnia and sleep disturbances. Those were the main ones. Unfortunately today, I still have chronic symptoms."

For others in his contingent, it was far worse.

Dowe is convinced the drug played a role in the killing of Shidane Arone, a teenage boy who was beaten to death by a group of Canadian soldiers who were taking the drug.
Canadian veteran John Dowe is the head of the Canadian chapter of the International Mefloquine Veterans' Alliance. (John Dowe)

The tragedy marked one of the darkest chapters in Canada's military history.

Master Cpl. Clayton Matchee, one of the two soldiers eventually charged in Arone's death, had "wigged out," Dowe said. He was beating imaginary camel spiders in the bunker where he held the bruised Somali prisoner before the teen's body was found an hour later.  

The Saskatchewan soldier was later found hanging in his cell. He suffered irreparable brain damage as a result of the suicide attempt.

Dowe said he and countless others were harmed by what he describes as a "botched clinical trial" — and they deserve help.

"The lawsuit deals with the human rights violations and the negligence for the way the drug was dispensed without proper medical screening," Dowe said. 

"We are being forced to take action in court because we cannot get Health Canada, the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs to co-operate with an official outreach program to screen former users of the drug."

Dowe wants long term treatment options for former users — and an official apology for the atrocities which occurred in Somalia.

"Then we can move forward," he said.