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Army investigating Fort Bragg killing link

By PAMELA HESS, UPI Pentagon Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Aug. 23 (UPI) -- The Army is sending a 16-person investigation team to Fort Bragg, N.C., this weekend to see if the recent spate of homicides and suicides among soldiers there is linked to behavioral or medical issues, or to drug side effects, officials at the Pentagon said Friday.

Four soldiers at Fort Bragg -- three of whom were special operations troops who had served in Afghanistan -- allegedly killed their wives during a six-week period in June and July. On July 23, the wife of a special forces soldier apparently shot and killed him in his sleep in the fifth domestic slaying at Fort Bragg this summer.

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The Army epidemiological consultation team, or EpiCon, which will include a chaplain, a psychiatrist, a social worker, an infectious diseases specialist and two representatives from the Center for Disease Controls and Prevention, will depart Sunday and remain for four days. Comparable to the multi-specialty teams that investigate aircraft accidents, the EpiCon will investigate all potential "behavioral health-related issues" as well as any pharmaceuticals that could have influenced the perpetrators.

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Among them is whether the anti-malarial drug Lariam, also known as mefloquine, could have played a role in any of the deaths. The drug is the most prescribed prophylactic against the mosquito-borne disease, which is the world's number one killer.

Earlier this month, United Press International reported that the three soldiers who had been in Afghanistan been prescribed Lariam. The drug has been associated with reports of aggression, psychosis and suicidal thinking, according to drug manufacturer Hoffmann-La Roche.

Roche issued a statement Thursday saying that Lariam, like all drugs, has acknowledged side effects, but that it has not been associated with violence or criminal behavior.

In a Deployment Medication Information sheet by U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventative Medicine, soldiers are warned to call their healthcare provider if they "develop unexplained anxiety, mood changes, depression, restlessness, or confusion" while taking Lariam.

Side effects are more frequently reported when a single high dose of 1,250 mgs of Lariam is administered to cure a patient already suffering from malaria, as opposed to the weekly 250 mg dose used to prevent it.

Army officials emphasized Friday the epidemiological team would investigate all possible influences on the soldiers' behavior and expressed frustration with media reporting centering on the possible link to Lariam, which they consider a necessary protection for soldiers deploying in many areas of the world. In Somalia in 1993 alone, 75 Marines and soldiers contracted life-threatening malaria.

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"Contrary to news reports speculating that the team will focus primarily on anti-malaria prophylaxis/medications taken by soldiers, the team will consult with local medical and unit/installation leadership at Fort Bragg on a wide variety of possible contributing factors," the Army stated Friday in a background paper.

Officials at Fort Bragg have been investigating the incidents and say they do not see a link to Lariam.

"This is very surprising that this is an issue, to me as a clinician," a senior Army official told reporters Friday.

"Fort Bragg's Serious Incident Review Board is continuing a rigorous, exhaustive investigation into each of the recent tragedies," said Garrison Commander Col. Tad Davis. "Nothing in that investigation so far suggests the FDA-approved anti-malarial drug Lariam is a factor."

Army officials have said domestic problems is the likeliest explanation for the deaths.

However, domestic violence experts said they have been puzzled by the killings because in none of the cases does there appear to be a history of domestic violence.

The drug provides 90 percent protection from malaria if taken before, during and after exposure to the mosquito. In stronger doses, it is also used as a treatment to those already infected with 90 percent effectiveness. It is not effective against the strain of malaria in South East Asia, which is now resistant to the drug.

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If a person contracts malaria and is not treated, chances of death are between 5 percent and 10 percent, Army officials said.

UPI has been conducting a six-month investigation into the side effects of Lariam, which has been given to some 22 million people worldwide.

-- UPI reported in May that mounting evidence suggests the drug has caused such severe mental problems that in a small percentage of cases it has led to suicide. In thousands of pages of internal documents obtained by UPI from Lariam's manufacturer, Hoffmann-La Roche, the company tracked increasing reports of suicides, suicidal behavior and other mental problems among Lariam users.

-- In July, UPI reported scores of Peace Corps volunteers are coming forward saying that during the past 12 years they suffered crippling paranoia, anxiety, hallucinations, suicidal behavior and physical ailments from taking Lariam.

-- Thursday, UPI reported the Army was warned in 1996 that Lariam was causing soldiers such problems when they came home from deployments that it was threatening to break up marriages.

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