Head-scratching time in schools Anne Arundel County: Incidents of infestation indicate lice becoming more resistant.

January 30, 1998

THE PROBLEM IS EVIDENT throughout the nation: Increasing numbers of students are being infested with six-legged lice and their rice-shaped eggs. They are becoming harder to kill, experts say. "It's the time of year for it," reports Donna Mullenax, nurse at Harman Elementary School, near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Shirley Albert, nurse at Baltimore County's Riderwood Elementary, concurs: "Typically in the past, you would send the children home and they would come back free of lice. This year, they're coming back after they've been treated and still have live lice in their heads."

For the past couple of years, health officials in several states have been warning that lice seem to be developing immunity to over-the-counter treatments. That would explain a sharp rise in outbreaks.

At Harman, the nurse checked about 600 students before the holiday break last month and found a dozen children with lice. Checks elsewhere in Anne Arundel County have turned up even greater rates of infestation.

Discovery of lice in their children's hair can be traumatic for parents who believe infestation is caused by poor hygiene.

"There's a stigma that lice are associated with dirtiness, when the fact of the matter is they like clean hair, clean heads," Ms. Mullenax told Sun staff writer Elaine Tassy. "We try to convince them it's not their fault. It's like when you go out in the woods and get a tick."

Head lice are treated by many medical officials as a nuisance rather than a disease. If the lice are harder to get rid of, people are carrying them for longer periods. That, in turn, increases the chances they will infest someone else. Crowded schools make ideal breeding grounds.

Concern over outbreaks of head lice infestation is understandable. Parents should not overreact: Particularly dangerous is the improper use of remedies that may scald the scalp or worse. An Oklahoma City girl was hospitalized last year after her head lice were treated with an agricultural pesticide. Health officials recommend use of over-the-counter lice-destroying shampoo (follow directions carefully), or get a prescription from a doctor. Also, check all family members, and wash towels, linens, hats and coats in hot, soapy water or dry-clean them.

Pub Date: 1/30/98

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