Head lice call for quick action, not blame, panic A LOUSY SECRET

November 15, 1994|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Sun Staff Writer

Give credit to Denise Murphy, a Baltimore day-care provider and mother of three children. She courageously stepped forward and admitted this startling news: Children under her care had a problem with head lice last winter.

That admission isn't really startling considering 8 million people, mostly children, bring home these wingless, bloodsucking, six-legged parasites each year.

For those children -- and their parents -- head lice are an unpleasant fact of life. Yet there is still an undeniable stigma surrounding lice and paranoia about discussing it.

"The hardest thing is realizing that you have it!" Mrs. Murphy says.

She's not exaggerating. A round of phone calls to public and private schools in the Baltimore area revealed that nearly all have had problems with lice at one time or another. But school officials and parents are reluctant to talk about it publicly. It's as if they've taken an oath not to divulge a sordid secret.

One northern Baltimore County school nurse initially agreed to talk about lice problems at her school, then later begged that her name and the school's name be kept out of the paper for fear of sparking mass hysteria among parents.

"It would be just too upsetting for the neighborhood," she says.

Message to parents: Chill out already! We are talking head lice. It is absolutely no indicator of cleanliness and neither fatal nor life-threatening.

"There is the unfounded impression that head lice represents neglect from parents and represents filth," says Dr. David Taplin, a professor at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

"We've been trying to dispel that impression for years," says Dr. Taplin, who has researched the lowly louse for more than 20 years.

Kids get lice from each other. The parasites don't hop, jump or fly, but they move easily from head to head. So any place children congregate can be a breeding ground for the insects. And children who share hats, pillows, combs or brushes are especially vulnerable to infestation.

And once they've got lice, getting rid of them can be a nightmare for parents, says Lennie Copeland, a mother in Mill Valley, Calif., whose daughter, Ashley, 12, came home with head lice five times in one year.

"Each time was like 'Oh No!' " says Ms. Copeland, whose experiences prompted her to write "The Lice-Buster Book, What to Do When Your Child Comes Home with Head Lice."

The cover of her self-published book is illustrated by a screaming woman whose hair is standing on end.

"I know it doesn't have anything to do with cleanliness, but my reaction was still one of disgust. Like I would feel if I found a cockroach in the kitchen," says Ms. Copeland.

An arduous process

She became an expert in the art of lice eradication -- an arduous process that involves repeated treatments with a lice shampoo, combing scalps for nits and thoroughly washing sheets, towels, hats, rugs and every other potential source of contamination.

Having survived her battles against lice, Ms. Copeland takes a philosophical attitude about the problem.

Lice are something that will continue to be with us, Ms. Copeland says. "Chances are that lice can not be completely eliminated. Lice have survived since Neanderthal man," she says.

So in the spirit of "knowledge is power," here's the skinny on the lowly louse:

Head lice are parasitic insects. They have no wings, a flat body and range in size from 2.4mm to 3mm. Their six legs have claws that grab the hair and skin.

They live on the human scalp, surviving by biting and sucking blood. An adult female louse lays up to 10 eggs a day for about a week. The eggs, called nits, are transparent and blend in with all colors of hair.

The eggs hatch in a week to 10 days. The young louse, called a nymph, begins looking for blood. After sucking blood it becomes a tiny red dot and molts about three times in the next nine days.

Seven to 10 days after hatching, it matures and begins to form its

own family. An adult can live up to 30 days.

All told, a female louse can produce 200 to 300 eggs in its lifetime.

Lice will crawl on an adult's head, but children are more likely to get lice because they play closer together and share clothing.

Mass appeal

Although boys do get lice, they tend to prefer females. It is the mass of a girl's hair that attracts lice, not the length.

It is rare for African-Americans to get head lice because the insect's claws have not adapted to their curly hair patterns, explains Dr. Taplin, the Miami researcher.

So what's a parent to do when confronted with head lice?

First of all -- stay calm and don't blame the child.

"Having head lice is not a social disgrace and not a serious problem," Ms. Copeland says. "Lice need be no more bothersome than the common cold. Unlike the common cold, lice infestations are treatable and the cure is immediate if you follow instructions for their elimination precisely."

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