Wall Street Journal
Sara Thompson (Burkina Faso 2011-13) sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night and finds her balance has left her. She stumbles to the kitchen. Or to the bathroom. She suffers spells of dizziness when she tilts her head just so, and sometimes for no reason at all.
Ms. Thompson, 32, said the symptoms began during her Peace Corps service in Africa, where she took the antimalarial drug mefloquine. In a lawsuit filed earlier this week in Washington, D.C., Ms. Thompson alleges the federal volunteer program negligently provided her the drug without warning her of all the possible dangers.
In 2013, the year after she returned from her two-year service in Burkina Faso, a landlocked West African country, the Food and Drug Administration required makers of the drug to add a warning label about potential neurological and psychiatric side effects, including loss of balance, dizziness, ringing in the ears, anxiety, depression and hallucinations. The black-box warning says the neurological side effects can take hold for months, years or even permanently.
A spokeswoman for the Peace Corps said the agency has a long-standing policy of informing volunteers of possible side effects before they begin a medication, but she declined to address Ms. Thompson’s case, citing privacy. Drug company Roche, which made Lariam, the brand name mefloquine that Ms. Thompson said she took, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
Ms. Thompson says in her lawsuit that she was given concentrated doses of mefloquine after arriving in the country, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that the drug be administered at least two weeks prior to travel and notes that side effects are ”more frequent with the higher doses used for treatment.” She is asking for $1 million in damages.
Ms. Thompson received a two-page medication guide from the Peace Corps that warned the drug could cause “serious mental problems in some patients,” including anxiety, depression or feeling disoriented. She told Law Blog the warning was an “inadequate representation of the several medical and psychiatric issues surrounding mefloquine use.”
For most people, the drug has been proven effective in preventing malaria. It is also less expensive than other treatments and has to be taken less often.
The U.S. military developed the drug about 40 years ago, but the Pentagon in recent years labelled mefloquine as a “last resort” for the prevention of malaria, as moreevidence of its possible side effects surfaced. Some branches have banned it entirely. Ms. Thompson requests in her lawsuit that the Peace Corps also use mefloquine only as a drug of last resort.
Since the FDA required the new warning on mefloquine, the Peace Corps said it has provided one-on-one consultations with volunteers to discuss the pros and cons of each medication, including potential side effects. The choice of medication is the volunteer’s, according to the Peace Corps.
“We take concerns raised regarding the use of Mefloquine very seriously, and we have taken proactive steps to ensure our volunteers have all of the information they need to make an informed decision about the anti-malaria medication that is right for them,” the Peace Corps spokeswoman said.
Ms. Thompson, who specialized in girls’ education and empowerment while in Africa, was frequently sick during her service and slept more than 16 hours a day, according to her lawsuit, which she filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. She became convinced other volunteers were stealing from her. Sometimes, while making dinner or reading in her hut, she saw things out of the corner of her eye, she said.
“The Peace Corps gave me mefloquine, despite the overwhelming evidence of the huge risk and health side effects, and the Peace Corps still uses the drug,” Ms. Thompson said.