Alarm grows in Iran over reports that hundreds of schoolgirls were poisoned



Concerns are mounting in Iran after reports emerged that hundreds of schoolgirls across the country have been poisoned in recent months.

On Wednesday, Iran’s semi-official Mehr News reported that Shahriar Heydari, a member of parliament, quoted an unnamed “reliable source” as saying that “nearly 900 students” from across the country had been poisoned so far.

The first reported poisonings occurred in the city of Qom on Nov. 30, when 18 high school girls were hospitalized, according to Iranian state media. In another incident in Qom on February 14, more than 100 students from 13 schools were taken to hospitals after what the state-affiliated Tasnim news agency described as “serial poisonings”.

There have also been reports of poisoned schoolgirls in the capital Tehran – where 35 were hospitalized on Tuesday, according to Fars News. They were in “good” condition and many of them were later released, Fars reported. State media has also reported student poisonings in the city of Borujerd and in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari provinces in recent months.

Many of the reports involve students in girls’ schools, but state media also reported at least one incident of poisoning at a boys’ school on Feb. 4 in Qom.

CNN has contacted one of the schools cited by state media as a poisoning incident, the Noor Yazdanshahr Conservatory in Qom, as well as individual teachers, but has not heard back.

Iranian Health Minister Bahram Einollahi, who visited the affected students in Qom, said on Feb. 15 that symptoms included muscle weakness, nausea and fatigue, but that the “poisoning” was mild, according to a report in Iran’s student news agency. .

Einollahi said his team had taken many samples from patients admitted to a Qom hospital for further testing at Iran’s renowned Pasteur Institute, which reported that no microbes or viruses had been identified in the samples, according to ISNA.

It is unclear whether the incidents are related or whether the students were targeted. But Younes Panahi, Iran’s deputy health minister in charge of research and technology, said on Feb. 26 that the poisonings were “chemical” in nature, but not compound chemicals used in warfare, and that the symptoms were not contagious, he said. IRNA.

Panahi added that it appears the poisonings were deliberate attempts to attack and close girls’ schools, according to IRNA.

“After the poisoning of several students in Qom … it became clear that some people wanted all schools, especially girls’ schools, to be closed,” Younes Panahi told a press conference on Sunday, according to Iran’s state media IRNA. He later retracted the comment, saying he had been misquoted, Fars News said.

But a mother of two girls in Qom told CNN that both her daughters had been poisoned at two different schools and one of them had experienced serious health problems after being poisoned last week. She spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the reports and fears for her family’s safety.

“One of my daughters was poisoned at school last week,” the mother told CNN on Tuesday. She said they spent two days at Shahid Beheshti Hospital in Qom along with several other schoolchildren and staff. Her daughter experienced nausea, shortness of breath and numbness in her left leg and right hand, she said.

“Now she has problems with her right foot and it is difficult for her to walk,” said the mother.

Local activists and national political figures have called on the government to do more in investigating the poisonings.

“The poisoning of students in girls’ schools, which have been confirmed to be deliberate acts, was not random or accidental,” Mohammad Habibi, spokesman for Iran’s Teacher Trade Association, tweeted on Feb. 26.

Habibi is among a growing number of people who believe the poisonings may be related to recent protests among the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement. The movement is marked by the outburst of anger from women and young girls over issues ranging from freedoms in the Islamic Republic to the crippling state of the economy.

“To erase the freedom of dress gains, (the authorities) must increase public fear,” he tweeted.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price called the reports of poisoning schoolgirls “deeply disturbing” at a briefing Wednesday.

“We’ve seen these reports, these are very disturbing, these are very worrying reports,” Price said. “It’s just an abhorrent act to poison girls who are just trying to learn.”

Price urged “Iranian authorities to thoroughly investigate these reported poisonings and do everything they can to stop them and hold the perpetrators accountable.”

In mid-February, Tasnim reported that Iran’s education minister, Yousef Nouri, said that “most” of the students’ conditions were caused by “rumours that have scared people” and that “there is no problem.” He said some students had been hospitalized for “underlying conditions,” Tasnim said.

Dan Kaszeta, a London-based defense specialist and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, spoke to CNN about the difficulties authorities can face in confirming reports like this.

“Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to investigate such incidents. Often the only way to discover the causative agent is to collect samples at the time of spread, and this is usually difficult or impossible,” he said.

“These current incidents in Iran are remarkably similar to dozens of incidents in schools in Afghanistan since about 2009. Some of these incidents strongly suspected the use of pesticides, but most of the illnesses remain unexplained,” he added.

Kaszeta further explained that odors are difficult to use as an indicator. “Some things have an odor added to them because the underlying hazardous chemical may be odorless.”

Jamileh Kadivar, a prominent Iranian politician and former member of parliament, also believes there are evil intentions behind the poisonings. “The continuity and frequency of poisonings in schools over the past three months proves that these incidents cannot be a coincidence and are most likely the result of organized group actions led by think tanks and aimed at specific targets,” she wrote in an op-ed in the Iranian newspaper. state newspaper Etelaat.

Iran’s Education Minister Yousef Nouri visited some of the students hospitalized in Qom after the string of school poisonings in mid-February, and said a special team had been formed in Tehran to follow up on the matter, according to a report in Tasnim. , a state-affiliated media outlet.

Iran’s national police chief Ahmadreza Radan said on Feb. 28 that they are investigating the cause behind the “poisonings” and that no one has been arrested yet, according to IRNA, while authorities are still trying to determine whether the alleged poisonings are intentional or not.

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