ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Fifteen children died after being vaccinated against measles in northern Syria, resulting in the program being halted, aid workers said on Wednesday, a tragedy likely to damage trust in health services in opposition-held areas.
An investigation by a Syrian opposition group showed that a muscle relaxant, contained in similar packaging, was used instead of the dilute for the vaccine in the second round of vaccinations in Idlib province, Mohammed Saad from the healthcare directorate of the Syrian opposition’s interim government said.
“The investigation is continuing to find out who is responsible,” Saad said.
The fifteen children who died on Tuesday were under two years old and dozens more were made sick.
People living in northern Syria largely depend on a patchwork of U.N. agencies and NGOs to provide essential medical services after an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad turned into a civil war. The three-and-a-half year conflict has left some 10.8 million people in need of urgent aid, with around 4.7 million people in areas that are hard to reach.
The second round of the measles vaccination campaign began in Idlib and Deir ez Zor on Monday.
The U.N.’s World Health Organization said it “provided a team of experts to provide assistance in investigating this event” but that it is vital that immunization efforts resume in Syria as soon as possible.
Measles is highly contagious and is spread by bodily fluids, drops of saliva from the mouth, mucus from the nose, coughing or sneezing, and tears from the eyes.
The disease can cause serious complications such as meningitis and pneumonia, becoming much deadlier in difficult conditions. In rich countries it kills only 1 or 2 out of 1,000 patients, but according to the World Health Organization it can kill as many as 10 percent of those infected in countries with high malnutrition and poor health care access.
Aid workers said they were concerned that parents would lose faith in the immunization campaigns with the next round of polio vaccinations scheduled in a few weeks.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Grant McCool