Head Lice Taking Hold in Schools Nationwide
An elementary school in Bay County, Mich., has handed out hundreds of bottles of medicated shampoo, and students at a Salt Lake City elementary school are storing their belongings in garbage bags. So far, it's been a pretty lousy year for lice.
"The lice have come earlier this year," said Beverly Pacynski, the director of pupil services for the Bay County school district, where officials from the 274-student Woodside Elementary School last month gave out about 500 bottles of free medicated shampoo to students infected with head lice.
Nationwide, head lice in schools has become the norm rather than the exception. Many schools have reported an explosion of cases over the past few years. An estimated 6 million to 10 million cases of head lice among children occurred last year, according to the National Pediculosis Association, a Newton, Mass., organization that educates the public about lice.
The group estimates that at least 80 percent of school districts nationwide will report at least one outbreak of head lice this year. And in most cases, that means students who have the parasite will be sent home from school until the infestation clears up.
"It is an ongoing problem at most elementary schools," said Nancy Carmen, the school secretary at Whittier Elementary School in Salt Lake City.
At Whittier, students are given large drawstring garbage bags to store their coats and backpacks to cut the likelihood of lice transmission. Medicated shampoo is given to pupils who can't afford to buy it. The Whittier PTA also regularly conducts "head checks" to examine youngsters for lice infestation.
"People are alarmed by lice, so we try to stay on top of it," Ms. Carmen said.
Like a number of schools, Whittier and Woodside elementary schools adhere to "no nit" policies that require students to stay at home until they are free of lice and their eggs, or nits. The policies often keep students out of school for days, weeks, and sometimes months because of a chronic infestation.
'Zap' the Pests?
Chronic infestation is such a concern in Bay County that the Michigan district is considering buying a few electronic combs that are used to "zap" lice with an electric current. And administrators at Whittier have recommended alternatives to the usual medicated shampoos, including the use of Vaseline or mayonnaise. Some parents have even tried dangerous alternatives such as applying kerosene or gasoline to their child's head.
But for many, these tactics are a last resort.
"I get 150 e-mails a day from parents telling us that products aren't working," said Deborah Altschuler, the president of the National Pediculosis Association.
"Head lice is a volatile issue for many people," Ms. Altschuler said. But, she said, she wants people to realize that schools don't get head lice, children do.
"No-nit policies work to keep children in school. People think of it as a punishment, but the idea is to keep them in school," she said.
Her group backs schools' use of no-nit policies, along with educating parents about how to effectively rid their children of lice. But the group also pushes manufacturers of pesticide shampoos to be more honest in their claims.
"The [shampoo] may kill lice, but they don't do anything to nits," Ms. Altschuler said. "No treatment is 100 percent effective."
Just last month, three producers of over-the-counter head-lice treatments modified their advertising after the Federal Trade Commission alleged that they were making false and unsubstantiated claims about the effectiveness of their shampoos.
Richard Pollack, an entomologist with the Harvard University school of public health who is researching lice treatments, said he has compiled anecdotal reports of resistance to the shampoos. But his study is far from over, he added.
"There is an epidemic of hysteria more than an epidemic of lice," Mr. Pollack said. Lice don't pose much of a hazard to public health, he said, and excluding children from school in the effort to reduce infestation is an overreaction.
"There is no reason for a kid to be out of school" because of a lice, Ms. Altschuler acknowledged, but she added that schools need to have a system in place that will protect all the students.
Gary Marx, the spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va., agreed that schools need guidance and policies to deal with head lice.
"If they don't have a policy, they end up scratching for an answer," he said. "It is a concern not only for the school but among parents and the community."
In fact, Bay County has formed a committee with the help of the local health department to draft procedures and make a video to educate parents about lice.
Vol. 18, Issue 7, Page 3Published in Print: October 14, 1998, as Head Lice Taking Hold in Schools Nationwide