'Treated like lab rats': malaria drug's dark side-effects haunt Canadian vets

A local police officer and former Canadian soldier is speaking out about the anti-malaria drug mefloquine. He took the drug while deployed to Somalia in 1992 and says it has caused him decades of psychological problems.

MP leading call for inquiry into adverse reactions suffered by soldiers administered mefloquine

Greg Janes served with the Canadian Airborne Regiment in Somalia in 1993. Soldiers there were administered weekly doses of the anti-malaria drug mefloquine, and began referring to the ritual as 'Psycho Tuesdays.' (Greg Janes)

Greg Janes was one of 900 members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment who went to Somalia in 1992 as part of a peacekeeping mission. As a medic, one of his jobs was to make sure everyone took the anti-malaria medication mefloquine.

Janes said soldiers were not asked for their consent before being administered the drug, even though it was considered experimental at the time.

I don't remember anything about side-effects being mentioned.-Greg Janes, veteran

"It was never a question of having a choice to take it or not to take it ... I don't remember anything about side-effects being mentioned," said Janes, who lives in Orlé​ans and now works as a police officer. 

The soldiers, including Janes, took weekly doses of the drug on Tuesdays, and soon began referring to the ritual as "Psycho Tuesdays," and to the nightmarish side effects they began suffering as "meflomares."

"I, and certainly the ones I'm in contact with, have never really been able to come out of that state of mind," Janes said. "How does that translate to civilian life? Not very well."

In addition to the nightmares, Janes said his symptoms included chronic insomnia, hypervigilance, irritability and "hair trigger" aggressiveness.

Mission ended in scandal

The mission ended in scandal after two Canadian soldiers were charged with torturing and beating to death a Somali teenager. At an inquiry that followed, questions were raised about whether mefloquine may have played a role in the soldiers' violent crimes.

Many soldiers now say they started experiencing psychological problems soon after taking the drug in Somalia and that those problems persisted long after they returned to Canada.
Greg Janes, who served as a medic in Somalia and is now an Ottawa police officer, is seen here manning a vehicle-mounted gun in 1993. (Greg Janes)

Since his return to Canada in 1993, Janes said he's suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, but he believes some of his lingering psychological problems can be traced back to mefloquine.

"Why is it after a quarter-century of medication and psychological counselling most if not all of us cannot make the transition back? Could it be were poisoned? The possibility exists," Janes said. "I don't think that that's normal, and I'm not alone here."

Other veterans speak out

This fall the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs held two days of hearings where MPs listened to a handful of veterans describe how they believe mefloquine has adversely affected them.

The committee has also received dozens of emails and phone calls in the past few weeks. As well as veterans who served in Somalia, soldiers who took mefloquine while stationed in Rwanda and Afghanistan have contacted the committee to say they, too, have suffered psychological problems as a result of taking the drug.

Conservative MP Cathay Wagantall is a member of the committee. She said veterans have similar stories of insomnia, anxiety, paranoia and depression.

"Mefloquine was given to them when they were in Somalia as an experimental drug. It wasn't licensed, yet there were protocols that were supposed to be followed to make sure they were screened, to make sure they should take it, and then followup throughout — and none of that happened. So no information went back to the drug company or Health Canada," Wagantall said.
Conservative MP Cathay Wagantall is a member of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs. (Steve Fischer/CBC)

Health Canada, drug supplier issue warnings

In recent years Health Canada has advised people with pre-existing mental health issues including depression, general anxiety, schizophrenia and psychosis, as well as anyone with a history of convulsions, not to take the drug. 

In August, AA Pharma, the drug's Canadian supplier, released a statement warning "psychiatric symptoms ranging from anxiety, paranoia and depression to hallucinations and psychotic behavior can occur with mefloquine use. Symptoms may occur early in the course of mefloquine use and on occasion, these symptoms have been reported to continue long after mefloquine has been stopped."

AA Pharma claims the incidence of serious adverse psychiatric reaction is just one in 11,000.

MP calls for comprehensive study

Wagantall disputes that figure, and said in the last month alone she's heard from more than a dozen veterans who've suffered serious reactions that could be linked to the drug. She's calling for a comprehensive study of all veterans who took the drug.

'I just hope they find the need to come forward and say, 'Look, we were treated like lab rats. You did an experiment on us and now you need to be honest about this whole thing.'"- Greg Janes, veteran

"We want to find out who all these individuals are, track them, find out what has happened as far as side-effects for them ... and have it recognized that this needs to be treated specifically as a different type of injury, Wagantall said. "When you try to treat it as though it's PTSD, it causes all kinds of other complications."

Janes blames the drug for a failed marriage and lost friendships, and said it has adversely affected his career, first as a solider and then a police officer. He's no longer on patrol, and has taken a desk job.

He continues to suffer from insomnia, getting by on three or four hours of sleep a night.

"For what it's cost me personally, for what it's cost me professionally, both in the military and as a police officer, I think I would have taken my chances with malaria," Janes said.

Janes said he decided to tell his story with the hope that it will inspire other veterans to reach out for help.

"I just hope they find the need to come forward and say, 'Look, we were treated like lab rats. You did an experiment on us and now you need to be honest about this whole thing," he 

"Let's not wait till we're all dead before families get to hear an apology. An acknowledgement and an apology, and they need to make it right."

'It was never a question of having a choice to take it or not to take it,' Greg Janes said of the weekly doses of mefloquine administered to soldiers. (Greg Janes)