Mefloquine “Left Me Hallucinating in a Mental Hospital,” Says NYT Columnist

While in India on a Fulbright Scholarship, New York Times columnist David Stuart MacLean says that pills prescribed to him to fight malaria resulted in him being strapped down in a mental hospital for three days, hallucinating. The mefloquine hydrochloride pills, sold under the brand name Lariam, were approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1989.

Hallucinating and Lost

On the morning of October 16, 2002, MacLean says he left his apartment in Secunderabad, India, leaving his door open, lights on, and laptop running, with no recollection of doing so. The night watchman saw him leave the building at 4 PM, and MacLean woke up the next day in a train station four miles away. He says he had no idea who he was or why he was in India, resulting in his being committed to a mental hospital, strapped down and hallucinating for three days.

Problems Since Approval

MacLean has since learned that when the drug was approved, the drug manufacturer, F. Hoffmann LaRoche, claimed that only about 1 in 10,000 people were at risk of suffering severe side effects that included amnesia, hallucinations, aggression, paranoia, loss of balance, dizziness, and ringing in the ears. However, a 2001 study in the Netherlands found that 67% of those who took the drug reported one or more of these severe side effects, and that 6% needed medical attention.

Dangerous Side Effects

Although the FDA now requires a black box warning on the drug, MacLean says the agency has reacted too slowly. He reports many horror stories about those who suffered from serious side effects. In 1999, an Ohio man committed suicide after simply going to the basement to get a gallon of milk. In 1993, a Canadian soldier, whose regiment called the day they took their malaria medication “Psycho Tuesday,” beat a Somali prisoner to death. Reports say that Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the American soldier who killed 16 Afghan civilians in 2012, also took the drug, despite its discontinuance by the US military in 2009. In addition, reports now claim that some of the side effects, such as dizziness, loss of balance and ringing in the ears may last for years, even becoming permanent. MacLean claims that he suffers from depression, panic attacks, insomnia, and anxiety that he did not have prior to his episode in India over a decade ago.

Although mefloquine is an excellent prevention against malaria, and is even prescribed to pregnant women, the risks of taking the drug may far outweigh the benefits, especially among military men and women, already under the stresses of battle.