Tehran, Iran – Hundreds of schoolgirls in several cities in Iran have been mysteriously poisoned in the past three months, causing a wave of anger and confusion across the country.
It all started in late November in the holy city of Qom, south of Tehran, when about 50 female students fell ill and had to be transported to the hospital. Most were released a short time later, but several had to be kept for observation for days.
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Similar poisonings have since happened in several other schools in Qom, Tehran, the city of Borujerd in the western province of Lorestan and the northwestern city of Ardebi. Scores of schoolgirls have been affected in each incident, and some have had to be hospitalised.
A lawmaker told an open session of parliament this week that girls in up to 15 cities have been affected but did not name them.
There are no confirmed figures on how many students have been sickened, but the numbers are thought to be many hundreds because the incidents have occurred for months and have even hit some of the same schools more than once.
Students have often reported strange odours prior to falling sick, saying they smell like rotten tangerines or a strong perfume. Some local media have cited students as saying they saw strange objects being thrown into school yards before a poisoning.
Symptoms include headaches and nausea, and local media have reported that some students experience temporary paralysis of their limbs.
This week, there were reports in foreign-based media that one schoolgirl in Qom had died after being poisoned. State television spoke to the girl’s father and doctor, who said she had died from an acute infection and was not poisoned.
Several teachers have also been reported to have been affected. The incidents started happening about the same time that several universities in different cities served food that caused food poisoning, but the incidents have not been linked because none of the poisoned students has become sick from food.
For months, authorities in schools, governors offices and the health ministry had either denied or downplayed the incidents, saying the schoolgirls had “panicked” or experienced only “minor” symptoms.
But a deputy health minister, Younes Panahi, earlier this week became the first official to confirm that the poisonings have been deliberate. He told state-linked media that “some people” wish to stop girls from going to school. He did not elaborate.
Panahi said the poisonings have been caused by commercially available chemicals and cannot be transmitted because no viruses or bacteria are involved.
As the issue attracts increasing media coverage, several officials and lawmakers have also since confirmed the deliberate nature of the attacks but have not named a culprit.
Alireza Monadi Sefidan, who heads parliament’s education committee, said in a joint press conference with the health and education ministers and intelligence ministry representatives on Tuesday that nitrogen gas was detected in the poison used at some of the schools.
A committee has been formed to investigate, and President Ebrahim Raisi on Wednesday ordered the interior ministry to follow up on poisoning cases. A day earlier, Iran’s police chief, Ahmad Reza Radan, said no arrests had been made.
As confusion and a lack of clarity on the attacks persists, factions inside and outside Iran are pointing fingers.
Several officials have suggested foreign “enemies” of the Islamic republic might have carried out the attacks to smear it.
Foreign-based figures opposed to the establishment have suggested the state is responsible for the attacks, accusing it of trying to exact “revenge” on schoolgirls who have circulated images and videos of months of protests that erupted across Iran in September in the wake of the death of a woman in the custody of the morality police.
Some have drawn parallels with the Taliban’s attacks in the 2000s and 2010s to poison schoolgirls to try to keep them from receiving an education.
The US State Department spokesperson on Wednesday called on Iran to investigate the cases of poisoning in schools.
The repeated incidents have prompted some parents to take their children out of school. Others have argued that keeping girls away from schools would serve the goals of the attackers.