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Syrian Children Die From Tainted Measles Vaccine

A member of the Free Revolutionary Police carries out an inspection on a measles vaccine in the southern Idlib, Sept. 17, 2014.
A member of the Free Revolutionary Police carries out an inspection on a measles vaccine in the southern Idlib, Sept. 17, 2014.

The World Health Organization and U.N. Children’s Fund say they are investigating the deaths of at least 15 children from contaminated measles vaccines in Syria. They say they have suspended the immunization campaign in both Idlib and Deir Ezzour provinces in northern Syria until the matter is resolved.

The U.N. agencies say they are shocked and saddened by the deaths of the children - all under the age of two - from measles vaccines that apparently were contaminated. The deaths occurred in the northern Syrian city of Idlib.

World Health Organization spokesman Christian Lindmeier said the children apparently had been given the wrong vaccine. He said a preliminary investigation indicates some 75 children had been immunized with a vaccine containing Atracurium, a muscle relaxant normally used as an anesthetic in surgery.

“The children who got vaccinated immediately got contaminated. As this muscle relaxant works according to the weight, this is why all the deaths occurred… in children under two years of age," said Lindmeier. "The older ones survived with symptoms of diarrhea, vomiting and anaphylactic reactions. But, they survived because of their stronger bodies.”

Lindmeier said a local organization called the Measles Control Task Force is running the campaign, which started Monday. He said tens of thousands of children have been safely vaccinated. Idlib is the only province with problems.

He said neither WHO nor UNICEF have international staff in Syria because of the civil war there. So no one from either organization is on hand to supervise the campaign.

“How this could physically happen is very unclear. As far as we can say right now, it all hints to a very bad human error," said Lindmeier. "There is still a slight possibility that it is not only human error, but on intent. That has to be cleared out definitely before anything can continue. It hints at human error right now, but the possibility remains until we have all evidence.”

The anti-government National Coalition of Syrian opposition forces suggested the vaccine may have become tainted because of a so-called security breach by vandals associated with President Bashar al-Assad. This claim has not been confirmed.

Measles is a leading killer of children worldwide. WHO and UNICEF say it is vital for the immunization campaign to resume in Syria as soon as possible. They note measles pose a particular threat to children who are displaced and living in camps or in other unsanitary conditions.