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Politics Lawsuits alleging mefloquine poisoning expected to be filed by veterans within weeks, lawyer says

A Canadian light armored vehicle drives next to a soldier during a patrol in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province, Afghanistan, June 25, 2011. Mefloquine was handed out to soldiers in Somalia, Rwanda, Cambodia and Afghanistan.

BAZ RATNER/REUTERS

More than a thousand veterans, serving members of the the military and former RCMP officers who were ordered to take mefloquine while deployed overseas have expressed interest in suing the government over the damage they believe the anti-malarial drug caused to their brains.

Paul Miller, an attorney with the Toronto-based personal-injury firm Howie, Sacks and Henry, says at least 1,200 potential clients have contacted his office this year to learn more about the possibility of launching such a suit. And 200 people, to date, have completed the required paperwork.

Some claims are expected to be filed in court within the next two weeks, Mr. Miller said Friday in a telephone interview.

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“The basic allegation is that the government, or the military, ordered the military personnel to take the drug or they would be court-martialled,” said Mr. Miller, “and [the Canadian Forces] did not reveal the side effects that they [the soldiers] needed to watch for, and they did not alert the soldiers to the fact that, if they experienced the side effects, they must discontinue the medication immediately.”

Much of the interest has been stirred by a series of town halls the law firm has held in Edmonton, Mississauga, Ottawa and Oromocto, N.B. Additional events are being planned for Quebec and possibly Kingston.

Soldiers who took mefloquine have complained about a wide range of mental-health issues including depression, aggressive behaviour, poor concentration, social isolation and suicidal thoughts.

The Canadian Forces conducted a review of the drug in 2016 that concluded there is no evidence mefloquine causes long-lasting problems. But the military also decided at that time that alternative drugs were the preferred options 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.

Rather than a class action, Mr. Miller said he has opted to go with individual suits, even if that could potentially mean more than a thousand trips to court, because it puts more power into the hands of the individual claimants. “It gives them the ability to say yes or no to a settlement,” said Mr. Miller.

The cases have been divided into three groups, according to the year and place of deployment.

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The first group includes soldiers who were sent to Somalia in the early 1990s and who were required to take the drug as part of an improperly conducted clinical trial. The second group includes veterans who were deployed to Rwanda in 1994 and other deployments in the 1990s. And the third, and largest, group are veterans and serving members of the military who were sent to Afghanistan.

Shaun Arnsten of Cochrane, Ont., a former member of the Third Battalion Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry who served in Afghanistan in 2002, was diagnosed with post-traumatic distress disorder (PTSD) in 2003 and medically discharged in 2004. He is also among those who plan to sue the government over what he says are the long-term effects of the anti-malarial medication.

“We were essentially told ‘You’re either taking mefloquine or you go home, and if you’re caught not taking mefloquine, you’re going to jail,’” Mr. Arnsten said in a telephone interview. Even today, 16 years after the first diagnosis, he said he is not able to hold down a job and is continually dealing with issues of rage, tinnitus, tingling in his extremities and an inability to focus.

“After this much time of experiencing [symptoms] at this severity, I know it’s not PTSD,” said Mr. Arnsten.

The Defence Department, which has yet to be notified of the suits, said in an e-mail that it maintains there is no evidence to suggest mefloquine poses long-term adverse effects 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.”

Mr. Miller pointed out that countries around the world, including the United States, Australia and Ireland are acknowledging the harmful effects of mefloquine on deployed soldiers, some through court settlements and others through general compensation.

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Some of his clients appear to be recovering “and then there are guys who are just a wreck," he said. “There are guys who have gone on multiple deployments and did what they had to do, and now they are just so screwed up.”

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