Alarm grows in Iran following reports that hundreds of schoolgirls have been poisoned

(CNN) Concern is growing in Iran after reports emerged that hundreds of schoolgirls have been poisoned across the country 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 “nearly 900 students” from across the country had been poisoned so far.

The first reported poisonings occurred in the city of Qom on November 30, when 18 schoolgirls from a high school 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 state-affiliated news agency Tasnim described as “serial poisonings”.

According to Fars News, schoolgirls were also reportedly poisoned in the capital Tehran, where 35 of them were hospitalized on Tuesday. They were in “good” condition, and many of them were later released, Fars reported. State media have also reported poisonings of students in recent months in the towns of Chaharmahal, Bakhtiari and Borujerd.

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

CNN contacted one of the schools named by state media as having had a poisoning incident, the Noor Yazdanshahr Conservatory in Qom, as well as individual teachers, but did not hear back.

A medical team loads a patient into an ambulance at the Halban Zaker girls’ school in the Iranian city of Ardabil.

Iranian Health Minister Bahram Einollahi, who visited the affected students in Qom, said on February 15 that the symptoms included muscle weakness, nausea and fatigue, but the “poisoning” was mild, according to a report in state media. Iranian Student News Agency.

Einollahi said his team took numerous samples from patients admitted to a hospital in Qom for further testing at Iran’s famed Pasteur Institute, which reported that no microbes or viruses were identified in the samples, according to ISNA.

It is unclear if the incidents are related and if the students were targeted. But Iran’s Deputy Health Minister for Research and Technology Younes Panahi said on February 26 that the poisonings were “chemical” in nature, but not chemical compounds used in warfare and that the symptoms did not were not contagious, according to IRNA.

Panahi added that it appears the poisonings were deliberate attempts to target and shut down girls’ schools, according to IRNA.

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

But a mother of two girls in Qom told CNN that her two daughters were poisoned, at two different schools, and one of them suffered significant 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 with several other school children 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 has trouble walking,” the mother said.

Calls up

Local activists and national politicians have called on the government to do more to investigate the poisonings.

“The poisoning of girls’ school students, which has been confirmed to be deliberate, was neither arbitrary nor accidental,” tweeted Iranian Teachers Trade spokesman Mohammad Habibi. Association, February 26.

Habibi is among a growing number of people who believe the poisonings could be linked to recent protests by the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement. The movement has been characterized by the outpouring of anger from women and girls over issues ranging from freedoms in the Islamic Republic to the crippling state of the economy.

“To undo sartorial freedom gains, (authorities) must increase public fear,” he tweeted.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price called reports of schoolgirl poisonings “very disturbing,” during a briefing on Wednesday.

“We’ve seen these reports, they’re very concerning, they’re very concerning reports,” Price said. “Poisoning girls who are just trying to learn is simply a heinous act.”

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

In mid-February, Tasnim reported that Iran’s Education Minister Yousef Noori said that “most” of the students’ living conditions were caused by “rumors that scared people” and that ” there is no problem”. He said some students had been hospitalized due to “underlying conditions”, according to Tasnim.

Dan Kaszeta, a London-based defense expert and research associate at the Royal United Services Institute, spoke to CNN about the difficulties authorities may face in confirming such reports.

“Unfortunately, such incidents can be very difficult to investigate. Often the only way to discover the causative agent is to take samples at the time of broadcast, and this is usually difficult, if not impossible,” a- he declared.

“These current incidents in Iran are remarkably similar to dozens of incidents in schools in Afghanistan since around 2009. In a few of these incidents, pesticides were strongly suspected, but most of the illnesses remain unexplained,” a- he added.

Kaszeta went on to explain that odors are difficult to use as an indicator. “Some things have an added odor because the underlying dangerous chemical may be odorless.”

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

Iranian Education Minister Yousef Nouri visited some of the students hospitalized in Qom after the spate 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 by Tasnim. , a state-affiliated media outlet.

Iran’s National Police Chief Ahmadreza Radan said on February 28 that they were investigating the cause of the “poisonings” and that no one had been arrested, with authorities still trying to determine whether the alleged poisonings were intentional or not. , according to IRNA.

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