Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:20 pm on 27th October 2016.

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Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 4:20 pm, 27th October 2016

Those figures give the current status, but I believe that the figures for the last eight years, which is as far as we go back, are similar. However, I am happy to write to the hon. Lady to give the exact figures. Of course, much of this debate is about how we move forward, as opposed to what we have done in the past, and I hope to demonstrate in my response over the next five and a half minutes that the steps we are taking are very positive.

It is important for me to state that we take the health and wellbeing of our personnel extremely seriously and acknowledge the duty of care to provide the best possible support to them. Malaria is a deadly disease, and we must protect our deployed personnel from it. The most effective way to do so is through the use of antimalarial drugs. However, as we have established, no antimalarial drug is 100% effective and risk-free. Indeed, all medications have the potential to cause side effects and adverse reactions in a small number of people. That is why the MOD needs to use a range of prevention drugs to protect our personnel and ensure that the treatment provided is the most effective for each individual. I should emphasise that despite tens of thousands of service personnel deploying to malaria-risk areas, no serviceman or woman has died from malaria resulting from an operational deployment since 1992, and cases of severe malaria are rare in the armed forces.

I turn to the two main recommendations of the Committee’s report. The first was that the MOD works with the Advisory Committee on Malaria Prevention to develop guidelines on mefloquine and other antimalarials, specifically regarding their use by military personnel. The MOD has always kept its malaria prevention policy under constant review, and I can confirm that a recently revised malaria prevention policy has been passed to the ACMP for its consideration.

The revised policy is based on three elements. In the first instance, at around the time when individuals complete initial training they will undergo a face-to-face consultation with a medical professional, to identify any adverse reactions to the five most commonly used antimalarial drugs. Secondly, after posting into a deployable role, armed forces personnel will undertake a generic face-to-face travel health risk assessment, again with a medical professional. Finally, once individuals are advised that they are likely to deploy, they will undertake a deployment-specific face-to-face travel health risk assessment.

The results of those assessments will be recorded in the patient’s electronic health record. Although the need for a risk assessment is not new—defence policy since 2004 has been clear on the requirement for such assessments—monitoring will now be better aided by an electronic records system. In answer to a question put by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East, perhaps I can say that if the actions that he described need to be taken, in extremis, before an emergency deployment, they will be based on those three thorough, face-to-face, comprehensive interviews, as recorded in the electronic record.

On that point, I reiterate what I said when I gave evidence to the Committee. I recognise that anecdotal evidence submitted to the Committee suggests that, in a small number of cases, some people believe that their individual risk assessments did not take place in the past. I hope that the new system will prevent that situation from recurring. I encourage anyone who has concerns about the issue to come forward, in confidence, as there are established processes by which current and former members of the armed forces can be referred to medical staff to have such concerns investigated.

That leads me to the second main recommendation of the Committee’s report, namely that the MOD should establish a single point of contact for those who are worried about their experience of mefloquine. I am pleased to report that the mefloquine single point of contact has been set up and publicised widely through the chain of command, veterans’ organisations, military publications and GPs. As I sat here listening to the debate, I googled the advice about that single point of contact, and there it was on the website. It was launched last month and is easily accessible. It is a confidential service for people to make contact by phone and email, and it is supported by other information on the Government website, as I have just said. Depending on their circumstances, individuals are directed to a range of information and services available to help them. That includes how service personnel and veterans can find out whether they have been prescribed mefloquine in the past. My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East has raised concerns about the quality of information being given on the helpline. I am more than happy to go and examine that, and I will write to the Committee with details as to exactly what advice is being given.

Again, I encourage anyone who is concerned about their experience of mefloquine and who has not yet gone to the single point of contact, including those who believe that their risk assessment did not take place, to contact the single point of contact or speak to their GP.

In addition to those two main recommendations, the MOD will conduct a prospective audit of returning travellers, to assess the impact of the new policy. That will be for any antimalarial drug that has been taken. The MOD will also continue to undertake post-deployment surveys, to enhance its understanding of compliance with the revised policy.

The Government informed the Committee that the MOD would undertake further research into the impact of the adverse effects of antimalarial drugs on the performance of military personnel. A research proposal is currently being considered by the MOD’s research ethics committee. The research will be in the form of a retrospective survey of soldiers deployed on exercise in Kenya who have been prescribed one of three antimalarial drugs. A questionnaire will seek information about risk assessments, individuals’ compliance with prescriptions, the incidence and prevalence of side effects of the drugs, and the impact of those side effects on functional effectiveness.

If there are any other questions, I will endeavour to write to hon. Members about them.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the Fourth Report from the Defence Committee of Session 2015-16, An acceptable risk? The use of Lariam for military personnel, HC 567, and the Government response, HC 648.

Sitting adjourned.