We summarized trials that evaluated the effectiveness and safety of mefloquine when used to prevent malaria in people travelling to areas where the disease is widespread. We searched for relevant studies up to 22 June 2017 and included 20 randomized trials that involved 11,470 participants, 35 cohort studies (198,493 participants) and four large retrospective analyses of health records (800,652 participants).
What are the concerns about mefloquine and what are the alternatives?
Mefloquine is often prescribed to prevent malaria during travel to areas where the disease is widespread. However, there is controversy about the safety of mefloquine, especially when prescribed for military personnel in stressful situations, and there have been reports of depression and suicide.
The only commonly-used alternative drugs are doxycycline (which can cause skin problems and indigestion) and atovaquone-proguanil (which is often more expensive).
What the research says
Mefloquine appears to be a highly effective drug to reduce the risk of malaria (low-certainty evidence), however, evidence did not come from short-term international travellers.
Mefloquine has not been shown to have more frequent serious side effects than either atovaquone-proguanil (low-certainty evidence) or doxycycline (very low-certainty evidence).
People who take mefloquine are more likely to stop taking the drug due to side effects than people who take atovaquone-proguanil (high-certainty evidence), but may be equally as likely to stop as people who take doxycyline (low-certainty evidence).
People taking mefloquine are more likely to have abnormal dreams, insomnia, anxiety and depressed mood during travel than people who take atovaquone-proguanil (moderate-certainty evidence) or doxycyline (very low-certainty evidence). Doxycycline users are more likely to have dyspepsia, photosensitivity, vomiting, and vaginal thrush (very low-certainty evidence).
The absolute risk of malaria during short-term travel appears low with all three established antimalarial agents (mefloquine, doxycycline, and atovaquone-proguanil).
The choice of antimalarial agent depends on how individual travellers assess the importance of specific adverse effects, pill burden, and cost. Some travellers will prefer mefloquine for its once-weekly regimen, but this should be balanced against the increased frequency of abnormal dreams, anxiety, insomnia, and depressed mood.
Mefloquine is one of four antimalarial agents commonly recommended for preventing malaria in travellers to malaria-endemic areas. Despite its high efficacy, there is controversy about its psychological side effects.
To summarize the efficacy and safety of mefloquine used as prophylaxis for malaria in travellers.
We searched the Cochrane Infectious Diseases Group Specialized Register; the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), published on the Cochrane Library; MEDLINE; Embase (OVID); TOXLINE (https://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/newtoxnet/toxline.htm); and LILACS. We also searched the World Health Organization (WHO) International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP; http://www.who.int/ictrp/en/) and ClinicalTrials.gov (https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/home) for trials in progress, using 'mefloquine', 'Lariam', and 'malaria' as search terms. The search date was 22 June 2017.
We included randomized controlled trials (for efficacy and safety) and non-randomized cohort studies (for safety). We compared prophylactic mefloquine with placebo, no treatment, or an alternative recommended antimalarial agent. Our study populations included all adults and children, including pregnant women.
Two review authors independently assessed the eligibility and risk of bias of trials, extracted and analysed data. We compared dichotomous outcomes using risk ratios (RR) with 95% confidence intervals (CI). Prespecified adverse outcomes are included in 'Summary of findings' tables, with the best available estimate of the absolute frequency of each outcome in short-term international travellers. We assessed the certainty of the evidence using the GRADE approach.
We included 20 RCTs (11,470 participants); 35 cohort studies (198,493 participants); and four large retrospective analyses of health records (800,652 participants). Nine RCTs explicitly excluded participants with a psychiatric history, and 25 cohort studies stated that the choice of antimalarial agent was based on medical history and personal preference. Most RCTs and cohort studies collected data on self-reported or clinician-assessed symptoms, rather than formal medical diagnoses.
Of 12 trials comparing mefloquine and placebo, none were performed in short-term international travellers, and most populations had a degree of immunity to malaria. The percentage of people developing a malaria episode in the control arm varied from 1% to 82% (median 22%) and 0% to 13% in the mefloquine group (median 1%).
In four RCTs that directly compared mefloquine, atovaquone-proguanil and doxycycline in non-immune, short-term international travellers, only one clinical case of malaria occurred (4 trials, 1822 participants).
Mefloquine safety versus atovaquone-proguanil
Participants receiving mefloquine were more likely to discontinue their medication due to adverse effects than atovaquone-proguanil users (RR 2.86, 95% CI 1.53 to 5.31; 3 RCTs, 1438 participants; high-certainty evidence). There were few serious adverse effects reported with mefloquine (15/2651 travellers) and none with atovaquone-proguanil (940 travellers).
One RCT and six cohort studies reported on our prespecified adverse effects. In the RCT with short-term travellers, mefloquine users were more likely to report abnormal dreams (RR 2.04, 95% CI 1.37 to 3.04, moderate-certainty evidence), insomnia (RR 4.42, 95% CI 2.56 to 7.64, moderate-certainty evidence), anxiety (RR 6.12, 95% CI 1.82 to 20.66, moderate-certainty evidence), and depressed mood during travel (RR 5.78, 95% CI 1.71 to 19.61, moderate-certainty evidence). The cohort studies in longer-term travellers were consistent with this finding but most had larger effect sizes. Mefloquine users were also more likely to report nausea (high-certainty evidence) and dizziness (high-certainty evidence).
Based on the available evidence, our best estimates of absolute effect sizes for mefloquine versus atovaquone-proguanil are 6% versus 2% for discontinuation of the drug, 13% versus 3% for insomnia, 14% versus 7% for abnormal dreams, 6% versus 1% for anxiety, and 6% versus 1% for depressed mood.
Mefloquine safety versus doxycycline
No difference was found in numbers of serious adverse effects with mefloquine and doxycycline (low-certainty evidence) or numbers of discontinuations due to adverse effects (RR 1.08, 95% CI 0.41 to 2.87; 4 RCTs, 763 participants; low-certainty evidence).
Six cohort studies in longer-term occupational travellers reported our prespecified adverse effects; one RCT in military personnel and one cohort study in short-term travellers reported adverse events. Mefloquine users were more likely to report abnormal dreams (RR 10.49, 95% CI 3.79 to 29.10; 4 cohort studies, 2588 participants, very low-certainty evidence), insomnia (RR 4.14, 95% CI 1.19 to 14.44; 4 cohort studies, 3212 participants, very low-certainty evidence), anxiety (RR 18.04, 95% CI 9.32 to 34.93; 3 cohort studies, 2559 participants, very low-certainty evidence), and depressed mood (RR 11.43, 95% CI 5.21 to 25.07; 2 cohort studies, 2445 participants, very low-certainty evidence). The findings of the single cohort study reporting adverse events in short-term international travellers were consistent with this finding but the single RCT in military personnel did not demonstrate a difference between groups in frequencies of abnormal dreams or insomnia.
Mefloquine users were less likely to report dyspepsia (RR 0.26, 95% CI 0.09 to 0.74; 5 cohort studies, 5104 participants, low certainty-evidence), photosensitivity (RR 0.08, 95% CI 0.05 to 0.11; 2 cohort studies, 1875 participants, very low-certainty evidence), vomiting (RR 0.18, 95% CI 0.12 to 0.27; 4 cohort studies, 5071 participants, very low-certainty evidence), and vaginal thrush (RR 0.10, 95% CI 0.06 to 0.16; 1 cohort study, 1761 participants, very low-certainty evidence).
Based on the available evidence, our best estimates of absolute effect for mefloquine versus doxycyline were: 2% versus 2% for discontinuation, 12% versus 3% for insomnia, 31% versus 3% for abnormal dreams, 18% versus 1% for anxiety, 11% versus 1% for depressed mood, 4% versus 14% for dyspepsia, 2% versus 19% for photosensitivity, 1% versus 5% for vomiting, and 2% versus 16% for vaginal thrush.
Additional analyses, including comparisons of mefloquine with chloroquine, added no new information. Subgroup analysis by study design, duration of travel, and military versus non-military participants, provided no conclusive findings.