Lost in India: passengers on an Indian railway platform. Photo: Getty
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Why did a man wake up on an Indian train platform with no idea who he was?

When David Stuart MacLean woke up in India with amnesia he assumed he was an addict who had overdosed. In fact, the only chemical he’d been taking was the prescribed antimalarial drug Lariam.  

On 17 October 2002, David Stuart MacLean woke up on a train platform in India with no idea who he was. “There, there,” a man dressed like a police officer said. “I have seen this many times before. You foreigners come to my country and do your drugs . . . It will be all right, my friend.”

David followed the man to a safe house for troubled foreigners, run by a Chinese woman whose son had overdosed in Singapore. “You have no idea what you do to your mother when you put these drugs into your body,” she said, crying as she told her story. David cried, too.

Later, he was taken to a neuropsychiatry centre in Hyderabad where a doctor administered antipsychotic drugs to stop the hallucinations that were keeping him awake at night. He managed to remember his parents’ phone number. “I’m so sorry,” he wept down the line. “I’ve been a terrible person. An awful son.” An Indian friend rounded up every American he knew in the city and brought them to the hospital. They arrived with newspapers and cigarettes, which David began to chain-smoke, despite never having touched a cigarette in his life.

As far as he knew, he was a junkie who had got himself into trouble. “I assembled a working self out of the behaviour of others,” he recalls in his memoir The Answer to the Riddle Is Me. In reality, he was a bright American student on a Fulbright scholarship suffering from amnesia, insomnia and convulsions. The only drug he had been taking was the antimalarial Lariam.

Lariam was developed by the US army with the Swiss pharmaceutical company F Hoffman-La Roche in the 1970s. It was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1989. When a randomised double-blind study was conducted in 2001 – a study that should have been completed years earlier – researchers found 67 per cent of patients suffered at least one adverse affect; 6 per cent required medical treatment. If this data had been available, the drug may not have been approved.

Between 2002 and 2004 the journalists Mark Benjamin and Dan Olmsted filed more than 40 reports on US soldiers who had returned from malarial countries such as Rwanda, Liberia and Afghanistan and killed themselves. Sometimes they killed their wives and children, too. The murder of 16 Afghan civilians by Staff Sergeant Robert Bales in 2012 has been linked to Lariam. For those with susceptible brain chemistry (or who have suffered brain injuries, as in the case of Bales), the drug can pool in the brain, inflicting irreversible damage.

When David returned to Ohio, he was confronted by photographs of a stranger bearing his name. He met a woman named Anne, who told him they had been in love. He couldn’t picture the two of them together and ended the relationship. Over time, most of David’s memories returned but he still lives with the threat of relapse, unable to prove that Lariam caused his condition.

The US military stopped the procedural use of Lariam in 2009. Roche has ceased marketing it in the US (though it is still available to British soldiers and on the NHS). An army epidemiologist told the US Senate that it was the Agent Orange of our generation. In 1994, a Roche safety report noted that Lariam could cause depression, which may involve suicidal ideation in a few cases. That it could lead to suicide was harder to prove. The cause was more likely “the progressive breakdown of traditional values”, the company wrote. It had nothing to do with its drug.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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New Digital Editor: Serena Kutchinsky

The New Statesman appoints Serena Kutchinsky as Digital Editor.

Serena Kutchinsky is to join the New Statesman as digital editor in September. She will lead the expansion of the New Statesman across a variety of digital platforms.

Serena has over a decade of experience working in digital media and is currently the digital editor of Newsweek Europe. Since she joined the title, traffic to the website has increased by almost 250 per cent. Previously, Serena was the digital editor of Prospect magazine and also the assistant digital editor of the Sunday Times - part of the team which launched the Sunday Times website and tablet editions.

Jason Cowley, New Statesman editor, said: “Serena joins us at a great time for the New Statesman, and, building on the excellent work of recent years, she has just the skills and experience we need to help lead the next stage of our expansion as a print-digital hybrid.”

Serena Kutchinsky said: “I am delighted to be joining the New Statesman team and to have the opportunity to drive forward its digital strategy. The website is already established as the home of free-thinking journalism online in the UK and I look forward to leading our expansion and growing the global readership of this historic title.

In June, the New Statesman website recorded record traffic figures when more than four million unique users read more than 27 million pages. The circulation of the weekly magazine is growing steadily and now stands at 33,400, the highest it has been since the early 1980s.