Finding the solution to an irritating problem

By Sarah Ebner, October 1, 2009
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Close proximity means that headlice are easily transmitted at school

Close proximity means that headlice are easily transmitted at school

A single scratch of the head is enough to make normally sane parents panic. Their fear ... headlice.

Only a few weeks into the new school year, and far too many children (and some unfortunate parents) will already be suffering from the dreaded lice attack. Gone are the days of the nit nurse, and also gone are the days when lice affected only a small number of children. New research suggests that between 10 and 20 percent of Britain’s 4 million primary school children will have headlice at any one time — up from around one per cent in the 1980s.

“There are so many kids now with relatively high levels,” says Dr Ian Burgess, Director of the Medical Entomology Centre in Cambridge, and a headlice expert. “They’re passing the lice around easily.”

There are many reasons why headlice have become so common, but there are three main ones — changes in school practice, resistance to insecticides, and a lack of urgency in dealing with them.

Although a surprising number of parents (one in four according to the latest research) still think that their school does nit checks, most do not, which means that the issue slips out of many parents’ minds. There is now a feeling that periodic inspections would, “be valueless, unless carried out weekly if not daily,” says a spokeswoman from Barnet Council.

“The schools are saying it’s really bad,” says Amanda Coplans, who co-founded Nitty Gritty, an aromatherapy based solution to headlice, 10 years ago. “More children are sitting next to each other at tables rather than desks, there’s more head to head contact, more huddling in groups, and central heating. Lice thrive in that atmosphere.”

Dr Burgess agrees. He explains that this “huddling”, whether to work or sit around a computer, is also partly to blame for the rise in cases of boys, and in secondary schools.

Headlice cannot jump or fly from one head to another. Instead, they crawl on or between hairs and feed on human blood. Lice lay their eggs (which take around a week to hatch) near the scalp, and generally stay close to the skin. Some people do not feel itchy until several weeks down the line.

Once a child is infested, parents have a few options. Headlice are now largely resistant to pesticide-based treatments, although many parents still use them. Instead Dr Burgess recommends newer options such as Hedrin or Full Marks Solution (not mousse). All treatments need to be done in conjunction with (the very boring) combing.

It’s all rather time-consuming, but there is a new solution. The Hairforce, based in Primrose Hill, north-west London, now boasts its own headlice “spa”.

Dee Wright founded the company after hearing many parents complain that they did not know what to do about lice. Customers have their hair vacuumed and combed by headlice “assassins” who go through it pretty much strand by strand (using no chemicals). Children are otherwise engaged watching DVDs or playing on Nintendos.

“We get 18-month-olds to grandmothers,” says Wright. “And at the moment we’re extremely busy because of children going back to school. We also had lots of Jewish families coming to us after all the summer camps. Children with lice pass it around each other. Then they go back to school…”

A visit to the Hairforce is not cheap (it is £40 a session, with three needed) but many grateful parents do not seem to mind. Wright herself argues that it is a failsafe way of removing lice, as opposed to bottled treatments.

Dr Burgess agrees that the Hairforce may have the right idea, but is put off by the cost. He is also convinced that only way to get rid of lice completely would be for the entire community to be treated at the same time.

“If you treat everyone at once, it’s so much more successful, because you can really knock the lice out,” he says. “What we need is a radical re-think, and, of course, continuous vigilance.”

    Last updated: 1:56pm, October 2 2009