More Bad Air from Big Pharma

Malaria (Italian for “bad air”) has been a plague on human populations for thousands of years. To this day, it still kills about 1 million people worldwide on an annual basis.

But back in the 1500’s, during their explorations of the New World, Spanish missionaries found an incredible cure for malaria. They learned about it from the indigenous people in the Upper Amazon basin. And this cure couldn’t have been simpler.

It was nothing more than a crude extract of the bark of the cinchona tree. But when the explorers and missionaries  brought this simple “Spanish bark” (or “Jesuit bark’) back to Europe, it caused a sensation. And was heralded as the first “miracle cure” for a deadly infectious disease long before antibiotics became available.

Like many plants, cinchona is rich in alkaloid chemicals. Including one that may sound familiar—quinine. Quinine is perhaps the most well-known malaria treatment in history.

However, although cinchona originated in the Amazon, by the 20th century all commercial production of quinine was centered in Southeast Asia. And by the U.S. entry into WWII, all the quinine-producing territories were in the hands of the Japanese. 

Which meant that Allied nations had no access to it. Thus, the U.S. military was preparing to send millions of troops into Africa, the Mediterranean, the South Pacific, and Southeast Asia without any protection against malaria.

So the Army launched a crash program to develop other anti-malarials. They screened thousands of plants for their ability to kill malaria cells. And they also pushed for new synthetic anti-malarials.

It’s a program that went on for decades. Through both the Korean and Vietnam wars where the widespread use of anti-malarials led to the development of drug-resistant strains of malaria. (Just as dangerous strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria  have developed more recently.)

And the latest chapter in the Army anti-malarial program has just come to light with the drug Lariam.

It was developed in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. When a group of U.S. military scientists was given an unprecedented amount of money to conduct the largest and most expensive drug exploration the planet had yet seen.

After years of secret work and an examination of over 250,000 different natural molecules, the Army medical scientists chose compound number 142,490. Known pharmacologically as “mefloquine hydrochloride.”

The military then turned over the drug to Swiss pharmaceutical giant Hoffman-LaRoche, which named the drug Lariam. And secured quick FDA approval of it in 1989. But like many other drugs, Lariam was never properly tested before being put into widespread use in the military. 

In other words, U.S. soldiers were used as guinea pigs in a long-term study by the military and the pharmaceutical industry.

The right type of trial was finally undertaken more than a decade later. And over two-thirds of the study participants experienced at least one adverse side effect. Including hallucinations, paranoia, confusion, severe anxiety, unusual behavior, and suicide.

And a review by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs found 34 articles in medical journals about patients who took Lariam and became paranoid, psychotic, or behaved strangely.

So why am I telling you all of this?

Because Lariam is still among the drugs recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for treatment and prevention of malaria. And not just for the military.

Within the civilian medical community, some U.S. physicians say they routinely prescribe it to overseas travelers. Which means if you have plans to travel to an Asian or tropical destination, you may face the same serious risks I listed above.

What I and many others (who have spoken out against this drug as recently as a wide-spread advisory issued last July 4th) find particularly outrageous about the continued use of Lariam is that alternative anti-malarial drugs have been available for over a decade. Malarone, in particular, is a drug widely recognized as highly successful at preventing malaria. And it has fewer side effects than other medications.

And there has always been an even simpler cure…

Tonic or quinine water.

That’s right. This common beverage contains the anti-malarial agent quinine. And it’s readily available in any supermarket or convenience store (now that quinine is no longer controlled solely by the Japanese). I even conducted a simple experiment in college to show that tonic water reduces malaria infection in lab animals.

The British Navy actually pioneered this treatment back in the 1700’s. They also included lime, whose high vitamin C helped ward off scurvy for the British “limeys.” Add a shot of gin—which is an extract of medicinal herbs like angelica root and juniper berries (not to mention the alcohol content, which, in moderation, offers its own health benefits)—and you’ve got a perfect cocktail to raise in a toast to your health.