UN agencies 'shocked and saddened' by vaccination deaths in Syria

A Syrian boy gets his measles jab in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Photo: UNICEF/Jordan-2013/ Alaa Malhas

19 September 2014 – Some 15 children died and 50 others were reportedly affected by a contaminated measles vaccination in Idlib, Syria, according to the United Nations.

“How this could have physically happened is unclear. It is not the first time, but is, nonetheless, the biggest tragic incident of that kind,” Christian Lindmeier, spokesperson for the World Health Organization (WHO), told journalists in Geneva today.

Mr. Lindmeier explained that manufacturers produced freeze dried vaccine powder and diluent. They were then shipped together to a hub, where the diluent had been kept in a refrigerator with a muscle relaxant – Atracurium - which was normally used for anaesthesia.

On the day of immunization, however, it appears that the vaccines were shipped further to health facilities, where they were first mixed and then administered. The muscle relaxant, which had contaminated the vaccines, was working according to the weight. Therefore, all children who died were under the age of two, while the older ones survived with symptoms of diarrhoea and vomiting.

The tragedy, as Mr. Lindmeier stated, all hinted to a very bad human error, which seemed to be twofold: during both packing and unpacking the vaccines.

He went on to say that the Measles Task Force on the ground, the non-governmental organization running the campaign, had immediately suspended the vaccinations.

A joint statement by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and WHO issued Wednesday stressed that “establishing the precise cause of the children's deaths is vital.”

The statement further announced that WHO has deployed a team of three experts to assist those carrying out the investigation in Idlib and will report back immediately. Moreover, WHO is also providing advice and protocols for the investigation of adverse events following immunization.

“The biggest challenge now is to continue the investigation,” said Mr. Lindmeier, underscoring that it is as vital to fully establish the cause as to continue the measles immunization campaign as soon as possible and rebuild the trust.

“Measles is a particular threat to children who have been displaced from their homes and communities, and who are living in camps or other insanitary conditions,” said the joint statement.

In 2006, more than 99 per cent of infants had been immunized against measles.

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