Alarm is growing in Iran after reports that hundreds of schoolgirls were poisoned

(CNN) Concern is growing in Iran after reports emerged that hundreds of schoolgirls had 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 that “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 hospital after what the state-affiliated news agency Tasnim described as “serial poisonings”.

There have also been reports of schoolgirls being poisoned 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 have also reported student poisonings in recent months in the cities of Chaharmahal, Bakhtiari and Borujerd.

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

CNN has reached out to one of the schools named by state media as having a poisoning incident, the Noor Yazdanshahr Conservatory in Qom, as well as individual teachers, but has not heard back.

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

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

Einollahi said his team had taken many samples from patients admitted to one 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 connected and whether the students were targeted. But Iran’s deputy health minister in charge of research and technology Younes Panahi said on February 26 that the poisonings were “chemical” in nature but not compound chemicals used in warfare and the symptoms were not contagious, according to IRNA.

Panahi added that it appears the poisonings were deliberate attempts to target and close 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 press conference on Sunday, according to Iranian state media IRNA. He later retracted the comment, saying he was misquoted, Fars News said.

But a mother of two girls in Qom told CNN that both of her daughters had been poisoned, at two different schools, and one of them had experienced significant health problems after being poisoned last week. She spoke on condition of anonymity because of 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 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.

Rising calls

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

“The poisoning of students at girls’ schools, which have been confirmed as deliberate acts, was neither arbitrary nor random,” Mohammad Habibi, spokesman for the Iranian Teachers Trade Association, tweeted on February 26.

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

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

US State Department spokesman Ned Price called the reports of poisoning of schoolgirls “very disturbing”, during a briefing on Wednesday.

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

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 Noori said that “most” of the students’ condition was caused by “rumors that have 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 specialist and a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, spoke to CNN about the difficulties authorities may face in confirming reports like these.

“Unfortunately, investigating such incidents can be very difficult. Often the only way to detect 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 at schools in Afghanistan since about 2009. In a few of these incidents, pesticides were strongly suspected, but most of the illnesses remain unexplained,” he added.

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

Jamileh Kadivar, a prominent Iranian politician and former member of parliament, also believes that there is malicious intent behind the poisonings. “The continuity and frequency of poisonings in schools over the past three months proves that these events cannot be random and are most likely the result of organized group actions directed by think tanks and aimed at specific targets,” 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 following the spate of school poisonings in mid-February and said a special team had been set up in Tehran to follow up on the case, according to a report in Tasnim, a state-run associated media outlets.

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

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