Anti-malaria drug did more damage than it prevented: Canadian vets

Some Canadian soldiers who received the anti-malaria drug Mefloquine have reported a number of side-effects including psychiatric disorders. (Bob Tymczyszyn/Postmedia Network files)
Some Canadian soldiers who received the anti-malaria drug Mefloquine have reported a number of side-effects including psychiatric disorders. (Bob Tymczyszyn/Postmedia Network files)


BY  | December 19, 2016

Dave Bona is still haunted by the horrors he witnessed as a soldier in Somalia more than two decades ago.
Kids being blown up and a fellow paratrooper being killed by an accidental discharge are among the images forever etched in the veteran’s memory.

He self-medicated with alcohol for years because getting “blind drunk” was the only way he could sleep. But the drinking led to “conduct issues,” which saw him stripped of his rank and honour, then ultimately booted from the military in 1999.

Later diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, Bona tried pharmaceuticals, counselling and even a service dog. But his anger, suicidal thoughts, seizures, vertigo and other symptoms persisted.

The once proud member of the Canadian Airborne Regiment is now among a growing number of vets who believe they were poisoned by the anti-malaria drug Mefloquine, which they were forced to take before it was licensed in Canada as part of a terribly executed human trial during their ill-fated 1993 United Nations mission.

“If not for that drug, I’d still be in the military,” said Bona, who now lives in Saskatchewan.
Mefloquine, aka Lariam, is now known to have a lengthy list of side effects such as paranoia, confusion, hallucinations and suicide, some of which can continue for years after taking it.
The Canadian government said it is study the drug but still plans to make it one of three to be used during the upcoming peacekeeping mission in Africa.

But Bona said his judgement was impaired by the drug and his difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality became clear one chilling night in 1993 when he woke up walking barefoot across a darkened military compound in Somalia clutching his fully loaded assault rifle.
“I remember having an overpowering feeling I was going to shoot someone,” Bona said.

Vivid nightmares were so common, especially the night of their weekly dosage, soldiers dubbed them “meflomares.”
Hallucinations were also widespread.

“It was so bad that our platoon commander asked that we be confined to the compound the days we took our Mefloquine, but the request was denied,” Bona said.

The drug’s manufacturer, AA Pharma in Vaughan, updated its known adverse reactions to the drugs in August and include hallucinations, suicidal ideation, depression and panic attacks.

While deployed in Rwanda in 1994 he stopped taking Mefloquine preferring to take his chances with malaria — a fatal disease transmitted via a mosquito-borne parasite.

Donning a maroon beret, getting his jump wings and serving with Canada’s most elite soldiers was Bona’s boyhood dream.
But after his African tours and enduring the shame of the airborne being disbanded, his life was in a tail-spin. His first wife left him and he faced a court-martial.

“I still struggle with being dishonourably discharged,” Bona said.
Death threats forced Marj Matchee to go into hiding with her daughter when her paratrooper husband was tied to the deadly 1993 beating of a Somali prisoner.

But after living with the shame for decades, she is now demanding the Canadian government shoulder some blame for the Somalia Affair.
“It’s been 23 years of denial,” the Saskatchewan woman said recently.

Clayton Matchee was a proud member of the Canadian Airborne Regiment, a loving husband and doting father, but he became angry and withdrew from his family after taking Mefloquine.

“He kept alluding to that drug,” Marj, 54, said, recalling one terrifying night when Clayton was home from Somalia on leave.
“I woke up to him choking me,” she said. “He realized what he was doing and said, ‘Oh my God, I’m in Canada, it’s this f—— drug.’”
When Master Cpl. Clayton Matchee and Pte. Kyle Brown were arrested for killing 16-year-old Shidane Arone, Marj immediately blamed Mefloquine, which was still experimental in Canada.

Her husband, who was “strongly against suicide,” attempted to hang himself in his cell and suffered permanent brain damage that left him unfit to stand trial.

Brown served 40 months in prison and now reportedly suffers symptoms similar to others poisoned by Mefloquine.
Three other soldiers were dismissed from the army for Arone’s death, including an officer who ordered troops to rough up prisoners.
John Dowe, head of the Canadian chapter of the International Mefloquine Veterans’ Alliance, served in Somalia and maintains soldiers of all ranks were affected by Mefloquine.

Dowe remembers Clayton seeing “camel spiders that weren’t there” while guarding Arone, so he has no doubt the drug played a role in the killing.

When Val Reyes-Santiesteban last spoke to her only child, Cpl. Scott Smith, on Christmas Eve 1994 he was making plans for his life after returning home from Rwanda.

“He called to wish me a merry Christmas and he seemed happy,” the Stoney Creek woman recalls.
The 23-year-old paratrooper was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound the next day.

For 20 years his mom has maintained he suffered an adverse reaction to the anti-malaria drug Mefloquine he was forced to take during his two tours in Africa.

“He came home on leave from Somalia and he just wasn’t himself,” Reyes-Santiesteban said.
Before leaving for Rwanda, Smith told his mom Mefloquine was “bad stuff.”
He also told a reporter he experienced hallucinations from Mefloquine in Somalia but was “prepared to endure these side effects” again in order to make a difference in Rwanda.

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