Head Lice Headlines

It is not often that insects headline the Hollywood Gossip sheets. However, recent headlines report:
Top News Press Reports: “Madonna Has Lice”
starpulse.com Reports: “Madonna Has A Lice Problem
ShowBizSpy Reports: Madonna Has a Head Lice Problem

So what is the Big Deal?
Pop Singer, Madonna, appeared on the Ellen Degeneris show in early November 2010 to discuss bullying and, BTW, one of her children recently brought home head lice from school. OMG, Madonna was having difficulty getting rid of them! I say good for Madonna for being willing to talk about the problem.

It is only in the last century that most people in the United States have been free of head lice. During the early 1900s, many public health efforts improved sanitation greatly. These included hiring “nit nurses” by public schools to inspect and eliminate lice infestations among children. Children with lice were sent home until lice free. This quarantine practice has been relatively effective and continues today.

Throughout much of human history lice have been common and even considered a sign of holiness. Hans Zinsser relates the funeral of Thomas a Becket in 1170 AD in “Rats, Lice and History”:

As the body grew cold, the vermin that were living in this multiple covering started to crawl out, and the vermin boiled over like water in a simmering cauldron, and the onlookers burst into alternate weeping and laughter.

All is not well with lice because they can vector diseases such as typhus.
During the Russian Revolution a typhus outbreak caused Lenin to remark, “Either socialism will defeat the louse or the louse will defeat socialism.”

While school children in the US with lice infestations are at low risk for typhus, social programs for controlling lice keep that potential problem in check. Head lice spend most of the time attached to the hairs of the head. They have hooked claws on the ends of their legs that are used to grasp the hairs. Lice walk from hair to hair, making little contact with the scalp. The lice shimmy down the hair shafts to drink blood from the scalp with their sucking mouthparts.

Female lice produce a secretion that coats the eggs and glues them to the shafts of the hairs. These eggs are commonly called “nits” and can be difficult to dislodge, even with brushing. Nits must be picked off the hairs singly by separating the hairs and pulling them off with fingernails. Nit picking is tedious and time consuming. However, getting rid of the eggs is important to getting rid of lice.

Insecticides are available for treatment of head lice. However, lice have become resistant to some of the commonly used pyrethroid insecticides. Resistant strains can be very difficult to eliminate. Most insecticides are not effective against the egg stages. This is why it is is important to remove the nits and to follow up with additional lice treatment after sufficient time has passed for eggs to hatch.

One of the best booklets for head lice treatment is published by the North Dakota Department of Health, “Head Lice Booklet: A Lousy Problem“.

Unfortunately, children who have head lice can become pariahs and targets of bullying. (Madonna was delivering a message against bullying in her TV appearance.) For this reason, people are reluctant to discuss head lice. This silences the social network and cuts off many people from information that may be useful for dealing with head lice. When respected people, including celebrities like Madonna are willing to discuss issues such as head lice openly we are able as a society to better address our challenges.

Head Lice. Photo: John Clark, UMass

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is a retired Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
This entry was posted in Education, Health, Pest Management, Policy. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Head Lice Headlines

  1. Pingback: Head Lice Removal Headlines | Living With Insects Blog

  2. Pingback: Lice Policies | Living With Insects Blog

  3. Wow… awesome article Professor Neal. I had no idea that Head lice could have such a negative impact on children. It seems crazy to me that kids bully other students for having lice. Right on for Madonna!

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