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Politics First of possibly one thousand suits to be filed Wednesday by soldiers and veterans forced to take mefloquine on deployment

Marj Matchee holds a photo and boots of her husband Master Corporal Clayton Matchee during an anti-malarial drug mefloquine rally September 19, 2017 on the front steps of Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/For The Globe and Mail

The federal government is about to be hit with the first of what could be more than one thousand individual suits filed by veterans, active members of the military and former RCMP officers who were ordered to take mefloquine while deployed overseas.

Three statements of claim covering a total of eight plaintiffs will be filed in Federal Court on Wednesday. The documents say the consequences of the government’s decision to force its military personnel to take the anti-malarial drug have been “disastrous" and that many Canadian Forces members have been left with long-term or permanent mental and psychological disabilities.

The claims allege that troops were sent into combat zones while suffering from mefloquine-induced psychosis, rages, paranoia and hallucinations, among other things. And, they say, the members of the military were not permitted to stop taking the drug even though the manufacturer’s warning said the use of mefloquine should be discontinued by anyone experiencing adverse reactions.

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The results for soldiers who have returned from deployment, say the claims, have been debilitating mood issues, aggression, bouts of explosive anger, night terrors, psychotic behaviours and a host of other symptoms that have “ruined marriages, job prospects and lives.”

The harms “were entirely avoidable,” say the statements of claim. “The government of Canada always had alternative anti-malarial drugs available to it that posed none of the severe neurological or psychological health risks of mefloquine.”

The claims have been divided according to the part of the world where the soldiers were deployed when they took the drug. One claim is for soldiers who served in Somalia in the early 1990s, one is for those who served in Afghanistan, and one is for Rwanda and other parts of Africa.

And there may be many more to follow. A representative of Howie, Sacks and Henry, the Toronto-based personal-injury law firm that is handling the cases, said Tuesday that more than 1,400 potential clients have called since December to obtain information about filing a claim.

Each claimant is asking more than $10-million in damages, with the Somalia veterans claiming additional compensation because they were required to take mefloquine as part of an improperly conducted clinical trial.

The Canadian Forces conducted a review of the drug in 2016 that concluded there is no evidence that mefloquine causes long-lasting problems. But the military also decided at that time that alternative drugs would be the preferred option for soldiers who deploy to countries where malaria is a risk.

And Health Canada updated the warning labels for mefloquine that same year to emphasize that certain side effects can persist for months after the drug has been discontinued, and may be permanent in some patients.

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The Defence Department, which has not had an opportunity to see the suits, said in an e-mail Tuesday that it maintains that there is no evidence to suggest potential long-term adverse effects of mefloquine on human health.‎ “However,” said department spokesman Derek Abma, the Canadian Armed Forces “will continue to monitor the scientific evidence related to mefloquine, and any future relevant scientific research will be thoroughly reviewed.”

The first clients to file suits include some of the veterans who have been demanding for years that the government recognize the damage that they have suffered as a result of taking mefloquine.

Dave Bona, a former member of the now disbanded Canadian Airborne Regiment who took the drug while deployed to Somalia is one of them. So is Sherri Elms whose husband, Captain Brad Elms, was also part of the Somalia mission and took his own life in 2014 as a result of what the claim says were the neurological side effects of mefloquine.

Mr. Bona said he hopes the court cases will alert more veterans who may have been harmed by the drug. He has tracked down the 12 members of his platoon from Somalia and says two have taken their own lives and another six have attempted to do so.

“It’s very apparent that a lot of the suicides we are having are mefloquine related,” Mr. Bona said in a telephone interview of Tuesday. “And the more people we reach, the more lives that can be saved.”

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