A former Army chief has admitted he has refused to take a controversial anti-malaria drug despite it being offered to his troops.
Lord Dannatt told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme he personally believes the drug can have “catastrophic” mental health effects.
He said his own son took Lariam and became “extremely depressed”.
The Ministry of Defence said: “The vast majority of deployed personnel already receive alternatives to Lariam.”
Lord Dannatt said he was “quite content to say sorry” to troops who had taken the drug while he was head of the Army, between 2006 and 2009.
Lord Dannatt said his son Bertie had suffered mental health problems after taking two doses of Lariam – the brand name for mefloquine – before visiting Africa as a civilian in the late 1990s.
He was not in the armed forces at the time, but had been prescribed the drug by his father’s Army doctor.
“He became extremely depressed,” Lord Dannatt said, “not the person that he would normally be – a very bubbly, personable sort of individual.
“He got very withdrawn, and we got very worried about him.
“If that had been untreated, who knows where it would have gone.”
The MoD’s doctors prescribed Lariam to more than 17,000 troops between April 2007 and March 2015, although it is not the main anti-malaria drug used by the armed forces.
Lord Dannatt said the drug’s side-effects – which can include depression and suicidal thoughts – could be “pretty catastrophic”.
He said: “Because Bertie had that effect, whenever I’ve needed anti-malarial drugs, I’ve said, ‘I’ll take anything, but I’m not taking Lariam.'”
Lord Dannatt said he was “quite content to say sorry” to troops who had taken Lariam while he was head of the Army, admitting the issue had not been treated as a priority.
Asked why soldiers had continued to be prescribed Lariam during his years in charge, he said the MoD at the time “hadn’t reached a settled view on whether Lariam was more beneficial or harmful”.
Lord Dannatt said: “I suppose, in that period from 2003 right through to 2014 – when we were focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, which were not malarial areas, and we weren’t giving a large number of people Lariam – it probably slightly slipped off our mainstream radar.
“I think we put it on the backburner.”
Lariam ‘turned me into an ogre’
“Andy” – not his real name – took Lariam on the Army’s tour of Sierra Leone in 2000, and says he still feels its side effects.
“The effects were almost immediate… I can be a nasty, violent person and I attribute it to this drug.
“Anything could be misconstrued – a look, a phrase, a word, something completely innocent in someone else’s eyes – but it would be enough to trigger a reaction. A reaction you knew you were doing but you couldn’t stop it.
“It was as if the wiring in your brain had completely gone.
“Had I known what the side effects were, I would have taken my chances with malaria. It turned me into an ogre.”
Andy says he also gets “depressed to the point of suicidal thoughts”. He explained the only reason he has come through such periods is that he has “a little girl now, and she needs a daddy. That’s the only saving grace.”
The MoD says that, since 2013, its doctors have prescribed Lariam to soldiers only following individual risk assessments.
Lawyers acting for ex-soldiers seeking compensation take this to mean that before then there was no systematic requirement for this to happen.
Lord Dannatt said the MoD was afraid of opening “the floodgates” to “very expensive” claims if it admitted Lariam had harmed troops, adding that “frankly, the MoD doesn’t have much money”.
He said: “The right response by the MoD would be to take a generous approach, as far as Lariam is concerned, and invite those who think they have lost a loved one, or indeed an individual who believes he or she is still suffering as a result of Lariam, to put their case forward and have their case examined.”
Critics of the use of Lariam by the MoD have described its effects as similar to “friendly fire”, a mistaken attack by a military force on its own personnel.
Lord Dannatt called this a “very fair description”.
The Ministry of Defence said it had “a duty to protect our personnel from malaria, and, as the last Defence Committee report concluded, in some cases, Lariam will be the most effective way of doing that.”
It added: “[Lariam] continues to be recommended as safe by Public Health England and the World Health Organisation.”
The drug’s manufacturers, Roche, said it “will continue to work with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that they have all the relevant information to ensure Lariam is prescribed appropriately”.
The Victoria Derbyshire programme is broadcast on weekdays between 09:00 and 11:00 on BBC Two and the BBC News channel.