The continued lack of clarity has led to widespread speculation about who is poisoning the students.
Tehran, Iran – Hundreds of schoolgirls in several cities in Iran have been mysteriously poisoned in the past three months, sparking 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 taken to hospital. Most were released a short time later, but several had to be kept for observation for days.
Similar poisonings have since occurred at several other schools in Qom, Tehran, the town of Borujerd in western Lorestan province and the northwestern town of Ardebi. Dozens of schoolgirls have been affected in each incident and some have had to be hospitalized.
A lawmaker told a public session of parliament this week that girls have been affected in as many as 15 cities, but did not name them.
There are no confirmed figures on the number of students who have fallen ill, but it is thought to be in the many hundreds, as the incidents have been going on for months and have even affected some of the same schools more than once.
Students have often reported strange smells before they got sick, saying they smell like rotten tangerines or a strong perfume. Some local media have quoted students as saying they saw foreign objects thrown into the schoolyard before a poisoning.
Symptoms include headaches and nausea, and local media has reported that some students are experiencing temporary paralysis of their extremities.
This week there were reports in foreign media that a schoolgirl in Qom had died after being poisoned. State television spoke to the girl’s father and doctor, who said she had died of an acute infection and had not been poisoned.
Several teachers have also been affected. The incidents began around 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 have become ill from food.
For months, authorities in schools, governors’ offices and the health ministry had denied or downplayed the incidents, saying the schoolgirls had “panicked” or experienced only “mild” symptoms.
But a deputy health minister, Younes Panahi, earlier this week became the first official to confirm the poisonings were intentional. He told state media that “some people” want to prevent girls from going to school. He did not elaborate further.
Panahi said the poisonings were caused by commercially available chemicals and cannot be transmitted because no viruses or bacteria are involved.
As the issue continues to attract media attention, several officials and lawmakers have since also confirmed the deliberate nature of the attacks, but have not named a perpetrator.
Alireza Monadi Sefidan, who heads the parliament’s education committee, said on Tuesday at a joint press conference with health and education ministers and representatives of the intelligence ministry that nitrogen gas had been found in the poison used in some schools.
A committee has been formed to investigate, and President Ebrahim Raisi on Wednesday ordered the Interior Ministry to follow up on the poisoning cases. A day earlier, Iran’s police chief Ahmad Reza Radan said no arrests had been made.
As confusion and ambiguity over the attacks continues, factions inside and outside Iran are pointing the finger.
Several officials have suggested that foreign “enemies” of the Islamic Republic carried out the attacks to smear it.
Foreign-based anti-establishment figures have suggested that the state is responsible for the attacks and accuse the state of seeking “revenge” against schoolgirls who released images and videos of months-long protests that erupted across Iran in September in the aftermath of the attacks. death of a woman in the custody of the vice squad.
Some have drawn parallels to Taliban attacks in the 2000s and 2010s to poison schoolgirls to prevent them from getting an education.
The repeated incidents have prompted some parents to withdraw their children from school. Others have argued that keeping girls out of schools would serve the attackers’ goals.