Sabotage suspected as dozens of children reported dead after measles vaccination in Syria

A child in Syria where sabotage is feared surrounding an international effort to prevent a measles outbreak. Photo: Reuters

Reyhanli: As many as 36 children were on Tuesday night reported to have died excruciating deaths after receiving tainted measles vaccines under a United Nations-sponsored program in the rebel-held north of Syria. 

The program was suspended amid rumours of sabotage surrounding the high-profile international effort to ensure the civil war does not result in an outbreak of measles.

Doctors in clinics in the towns of Jirjanaz and Maaret al-Nouman in the north-eastern province of Idlib said children started falling ill soon after the doses were administered.

Relief organisations just over the border in Turkey said the loss of life was extensive, rising as high as 36, with more than a dozen other children in a serious condition.


"It's very bad. The figures of dead go into the 30s. Children are dying very quickly," said Daher Zidan, the co-ordinator of the medical charity, UOSSM. "We think it will get worse."

The Syrian opposition coalition, which controls the area of Idlib province and had been administering the program, said it had halted the immunisation project.

"The Syrian interim government's health ministry has instructed a halt to the second round of the measles vaccination campaign, which began Monday . . . following several fatalities and injuries among children in vaccination centres in the Idlib countryside," a statement said.

Medical experts said a contaminated batch of the vaccine was the most likely explanation for the incident. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) launched the vaccination drive to ensure 1.6 million children were granted protection from measles this northern summer.

The organisation said it was checking the reports and could not confirm the number of casualties.

Many opposition sympathisers circulated images of the dying children on social media sites with suggestions the vaccine had been adulterated with cyanide, possibly by regime agents.

Idlib is one of the few strongholds of the Western-backed rebel movement, which has largely been eclipsed by the Islamic State or al-Qaeda's Nusra Front in non-regime-held parts of Syria. 

Mohammad Mowas, a Syrian doctor working in Turkey, said the reported symptoms were a gradual slowdown in the heart rate as the infants turned blue, which were consistent with cyanide poisoning. 

"This looks like a deliberate attempt to spike the vaccines," he said.

Fears that the number of casualties could rise further circulated in the exile medical community.

Each bottle of the vaccine contains 40 doses and medics believe two bottles were suspect.

Telegraph, London