Sophie Black writes:

The details from the public inquiry into Private Kovco’s death have painted a bizarre picture of
an experienced soldier fooling around with a
loaded gun, made even stranger by the revelation
that he had dreamt about his death only a
month before.

But is it possible that
Kovco’s behaviour – and his alarming dream – could be explained as
effects of an anti-malaria drug which is known, in some people, to cause
symptoms like out-of-character behaviour, frightening dreams and
suicidal ideation?

A Crikey source who took the anti-malaria drug Lariam while
working in Africa says that it gave him “bizarre
dreams but also suicidal tendencies”. He said that when Kovco wrote
he wanted to shoot himself in the head “just to see what it felt like”
it “sounded uncannily familiar… I had many such tendencies, which
were fed by a weird
curiosity, not depression, voices in the head or any other sort of predicator”.

Crikey understands that soldiers deployed to Iraq are prescribed
anti-malaria drugs but in most cases, Doxyciline is the preferred
medication. So it’s pretty unlikely that Kovco took
Lariam, also known as Mefloquine. But Lariam is sometimes prescribed for soldiers who are unable to take Doxyciline and in 2004,
a group of Australian soldiers raised concerns
about the side effects of this alternative malaria drug when it was given to troops
served in East Timor. Veterans blamed Lariam for side effects including
deep depression and
suicidal thoughts.

On 31 March, Kovco wrote in his personal journal about a dream the night before in which he shot himself in the head. “Don’t get me
wrong, I don’t have any intention of shooting myself”,
he wrote. “I’m very happy with my life. It just shook me up a bit… I
haven’t felt like that since I went through a rough patch, very
bloody rough, four years ago. I know it wasn’t about killing myself.”

Kovco said he
dreamt about sitting in the room he shared with two other
soldiers in Baghdad and “for some unknown reason” he pulled out his
pistol and shot himself in the head. “I have no idea why, but it seemed
I wanted to see what it felt like”, he wrote. “I didn’t die, but
it felt like I did, but didn’t (if that makes sense?)”

Hoffmann-La Roche, the company that manufactures Lariam, acknowledges that: “Mefloquine may cause psychiatric symptoms in a
number of patients, ranging from anxiety, paranoia and depression to
hallucinations and psychotic behaviour… [T]hese symptoms have been
reported to continue long after Mefloquine has been stopped. Rare cases
of suicidal ideation and suicide have been reported ….”

Information at the inquiry so far has not
suggested that Kovco
was displaying any physical symptoms that could be connected
to Lariam and most people who take the drug don’t suffer side effects. But given the drug’s history the question of what
anti-malaria medication Kovco was taking should be asked, if it hasn’t been already.

Crikey contacted ADF this morning to ask if soldiers
deployed to Iraq were ever prescribed Lariam and whether the issue will
be raised at the inquiry. An ADF spokesman informed us that the army
couldn’t reveal what would be discussed at the inquiry, but they’re
getting back to us as to whether Lariam was ever prescribed to troops in Iraq.

Read here and here for more Lariam case studies.