Up to 40 children have died after being injected with a measles vaccine.

The World Health Organisation called the situation "extremely concerning"

The World Health Organisation called the situation “extremely concerning”

The Measles Task Force, which is currently vaccinating children in the Idlip Province of Syria has “temporarily suspended” its measles vaccination programme after the deaths of up to 40 children.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that is urgently investigating the situation, calling it “extremely concerning” news. There are growing fears that the child death toll could rise.

The WHO was quick to downplay suggestions that agents of the Assad regime could have deliberately contaminated the vaccine. A spokesman said: “At this stage all possible causes to these tragic deaths are pure speculation. There could potentially be a whole range of possible reasons leading to the injury and deaths of these children. We have not ruled out tampering, but it is unlikely.”

The Idlip provinces is among the few areas under the control of rebel forces, but whether the cause of death is deliberate or accidental contamination or human error has yet to be established. The WHO is finding it difficult to investigate because of the the region’s dangerous security situation.

The WHO spokesman said “The biggest challenge is to get first hand-hand information because at the moment we are relying on second-hand information. We need people on the ground. Normally this would take one or two days but the situation in Syria makes this challenging.”

The vaccination programme aims to protect 1.6 million Syrian children from measles; local health authorities reported that 60,000 children have already been successfully vaccinated with the same vaccine batch. The WHO said that this meant that only a small number of vaccine vials had been affected, because there was a relatively low death rate in relation to the number of children unaffected by vaccination.