A lousy problem

“My kid is a Terrific Kid at [something or other] school” is a message in the language of love — practically a universal tongue. Proud parents treasure their children, no matter what, and they’re anxious to let the world know about those children. But what if your child is sent home from school with head lice? Yes, head lice, on your kid — your Terrific Kid.

It could happen.

Head lice aren’t particular about whose hair they settle into, so long as it’s a person’s — not a cat’s or a dog’s. The Asheville City and Buncombe County schools continue to struggle with the problem among their students.

The reaction of proud parents when their child is sent home from school is predictable — lots of anguish, and maybe a bit of denial: “How dare this disgusting little ectoparasite take up residence on our Tiffany or Joshua? We’re good, clean people.”

But the lice don’t care about that. They have another agenda, called “survival” — something they’ve been perfecting since the dawn of time. For lice to spread, direct physical contact must take place: All lice are wingless and can only crawl on their six legs. But they spread quickly, so even a Terrific Kid can pick them up.

Still, the chances of a child picking up head lice at school is considerably less than elsewhere in public, because of aggressive measures taken by the schools. For parents and schools, this means a tough fight against a persistent, tenacious opponent. Sending an infested child home is a particularly troubling aspect of the problem — bringing no end of anxiety (heartbreak, even) for the child, the parents and the school staff. Our school employees seem to exercise their utmost empathy, but their strategy follows current school policy based on the best knowledge available. Thus, schools find themselves with another problem not of their making, another demand on their already-scarce time: checking kids and monitoring an irksome situation, all the while walking the tightrope of public trust.

When one of our local schools opened last fall, some of the newly arriving students were found to be infested with head lice and had to be sent home. Where did these children become infested? School had just opened. Evidence points to summer camp, daycare, the park, the playground — anywhere children mingle. Pulling, rolling, tumbling, hugging, play-acting, trying on hats, borrowing hairbrushes: Many of the things kids do together give lice excellent opportunities to spread.

The present lice-extermination strategy calls for various scalp treatments, primarily involving pesticide-containing shampoos. After shampooing, the recommended follow-up is physical removal of nits (lice eggs) — requiring systematic application of a very fine-toothed comb. The pesticides in the most commonly available shampoos — for example, Permethrin or pyrethrum extract — are not considered harmful to warm-blooded animals. North Carolina State Entomologist Charles Appleton, when contacted about the current lice problem, said that he believes louse resistance to the above-mentioned pesticides may be fairly prevalent in North Carolina, but that careful laboratory tests would be required for verification.

This writer has interviewed two principals and several teachers in our grade schools, and an experienced teacher in a private school. An experienced lice-checker from one of the schools was also contacted. Plainly, the schools are doing a good job of handling a difficult problem. Great effort is devoted to reducing the child’s anxiety and reassuring the parents. Meanwhile, the school tries to comply with existing policy, intended to prevent the spread of head lice in the classroom.

Lice have always been the object of revulsion and indignation. Take, for example, the poem “To a Louse, on Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church,” written by Robert Burns in 1786, which reads, in part:

Ye ugly, creepan, blastet wonner
Detested, shunn’d, by saunt an’ sinner
How daur ye set yor fit upon her
Sae fine a Lady!
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
On some poor body.”

In the same poem, Burns alludes to how easily lice are spread:
“O Jenny, dinna toss your head
an’ set your beauties a’ abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
… the blastie’s making!

The head louse is uncouth from the get-go. He/she enters this world as an egg, glued to the base of a hair on someone’s head. In four to five days, the louse is ready to leave the egg, which it does by gulping air and expelling it through the anus. Finally — when enough pressure builds up — the end of the egg pops off, and out comes the louse. Granted, these shenanigans might be a big hit at a fraternity party — but for the rest of us, entertaining pests they are not.

Where are the lice coming from? Just about anywhere. Picture a big brother or sister, spending a few nights in a hostel in Rome, and coming home to Asheville two days later, lice in tow. (If the person in Customs asks, “Anything to declare?” nobody ever says, “Well, yeah, I’ve got these, you know, little things in my scalp.”) With the speed of today’s transportation, lice can get to new places in a hurry.

One of the challenges in lice control is the need to allow time for treatments to do their work. Parents are in a hurry, schools are in a hurry, the world is in a hurry. The humble louse is not in a hurry. Solving a lice problem takes considerable work — and frustrating amounts of time.

Lice have been part of humans’ habitats as long as people have been around. References in history books to lice-caused problems probably refer to body lice — fortunately not found in our schools. Body lice can, and often do, carry disease; head lice do not. Famous cases of lice-borne disease — such as typhus in Napoleon’s army — get their notoriety from the disease, not the carrier.

How about the home? Well, not yours or mine, but those other ones (you know who we’re talking about). Before you get judgmental, think again: Some of the homes from which infested children show up for school are found in Asheville’s “best” neighborhoods. Experts have noted that head lice are found “without respect to socioeconomic causation.”

Whether a child lives in a mobile home or in a new house with a six-figure price tag, both have nearly the same opportunity for becoming infested. Private schools have had students show up infested. African-Americans almost never become infested — a matter of considerable curiosity to medical entomologists. Why lice become prevalent in a particular environment is not yet understood, but research is seeking answers, hoping to help everyone avoid the “ugly, creepan, blastet wonner.” But, if a child is found to have head lice, the home must be involved. Consequently, bedding, hats, hairbrushes and combs that may have become infested must be dealt with.

A problem as complex as head lice in the schools — involving health officials, teachers, administrators, parents and children — by its very nature contains numerous facets and points of view, all swirling about in a stew of tension and anxiety. Naturally, controversy is inevitable. Some experts question parts of the current lice-control strategy — particularly the part about sending children home. A child treated at home, according to correct procedures, may return to school only to be sent home again. The school days lost by kids are a serious matter — not to mention parental time away from the workplace.

The ruling from the school may be that nits were still found to be present. The parents probably acted in good faith, doing their best to comply, yet the ruling from the school is absolute. The child must be sent home. Frustration, already high at home, is liable to increase. But there is no appeal. As one observer noted, “The parent volunteer or [designated examiner] is empowered to screen children, and label them … [essentially acting as] accuser, judge, jury and jailer.”

Parents may exclaim: “The stuff doesn’t work! The school sent Allison home again, even after we shampooed and combed and everything.” That’s because, in some cases, dead eggs, lice or other debris from the scalp may be interpreted by the school as positive evidence of a lice infestation, even though it may no longer be active. The schools are usually able to make the distinction, but may “err on the side of … better safe than sorry,” according to insect-identification specialist Dave Stephan at N.C. State University.

Whatever happens, though, your kid is a Terrific Kid — and the lousy problem can’t change that.

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