Asylum seekers on Manus Island were being reportedly prescribed a controversial drug known to create or worsen mental health issues for a long time. However, the immigration department has moved to an alternative drug after the practice came to the forefront.

Mefloquine, which is also known as Lariam, was allegedly prescribed to an unknown number of asylum seekers between 2012 and 2013. The side effects of the drug include mood swings, agitation, confusion, hallucination, panic attacks, psychosis, aggression and even suicidal thoughts in patients. People who have a history of mental health illness are advised not to take the drug.

The Yahoo News reported that, according to the immigration department, the asylum seekers were made aware of these side effects of the drug and were monitored for adverse effects. There were also calls for investigations into the Australian Defence Force for the use of the drug.

The ABC reported that in late 2012 under the Labor government, the asylum seekers were given another drug, which had less side effects, to treat malaria.

Health providers on the island told the ABC’s Lateline that, fearing a malaria outbreak after a majority of asylum seekers refused to take the medicine daily as required, the drug was changed. A health professional who worked on the island at that time said that the side effects were being weighed against malaria, which is a life-threatening disease.

James Beeson, malaria expert and head of the Centre for Biomedical Research at the Burnett Institute, said that Mefloquine should be prescribed only after a very careful consideration.

“You have to assess each person individually and understand their risks and their other medical conditions and their current environment,” he said. “So I think if you made an assessment that people were at risk of psychological illness or of high levels of stress or anxiety, that would certainly influence your decision as to whether to give mefloquine to those people.”

An immigration department spokesperson said that it was considering prescribing alternatives to the drug.