Note: Every once in a while we here at the old bloggie limp, or shuffle, over to the stove and brew up a nasty, filthy, strong pot of coffee. The ensuing, almost hallucinatory, stimulation allows us to publish “monster” blog posts. This is one.
Oh, dear readers, you may recall from your early childhood the bowl haircut boys—this was usually due to parents’ extreme frugality—but you may remember as well the rare boy who would disappear between class breaks and return a few days later with a bald head and hang-dog look on his face. Worried exchanges would take place well out of his earshot—so lovingly thoughtful were we children back then—and the “L-word” was introduced to us. Around the JFK assassination in my clock.
So, welcome to a “Back To The Future” moment. Here’s a future no one wants to back into, so to speak. However, Nick is on the beat. And I’m an amateur entomologist. I just love bugs. Happy reading!
During late winter this year, head lice were epidemic at my children’s school. That’s not to say that the place was exactly lousy with lice. But for a few weeks, children with lice were found often enough to worry my wife and me.
Frequently, when one infested child was identified, others were found. Usually, we were able to infer who the children were by who was sent home. Often, the same two siblings, who were coincidentally in both of our children’s classrooms, were sent home.
The school immediately informed us of newly discovered (or rediscovered) infestations. And when they did, we made our children strip in the subfreezing garage, searched through their hair like frantic chimps, and envisioned the ballooning water bills when we would be driven to wash and rewash bedding. We felt fortunate that they remained louse free.
The word “louse”, or variations of it, is firmly rooted in our language. Figurative use as pejoratives dates from late 14th century: “lousy weather” or “louse of brother-in-law” (whatever) are examples. “Lousy with” (swarming with) is an American usage from the 1840s. But these are expressions we use without thinking, just as we use “lock, stock, and barrel”. Lice infestations today seem somewhat novel and unusual. They were once more visceral and immediate.
During most of human history, lice infestation was a ubiquitous experience. Lice have been found with Egyptian mummies. Or take, for instance, the Vikings, but nearly any group would do. The Vikings, as they were exploiting and expanding the world, in addition to arms and amulets, carried among their accoutrement finely crafted combs with closely spaced teeth. During that period, most people wore their hair long, and combs were used as much for removing head lice as for making hair look beautiful.
The historical novel Lord Grizzly tells the story of the American mountain man Hugh Glass who travels up the Missouri River in 1823 with a party of beaver trappers. Hugh is attacked by a she grizzly bear with a cub. Though he succeeds in killing the bear with his knife, he gets pretty well torn up and a displaced fracture of his leg. His companions find him, sew him up with sinew, dig his grave, and wait for him to die. But Hugh won’t die. It’s hostile Indian country and after watching over him for several days, they abandon him, taking all food and weapons with them.
When Hugh finally comes around, he manages to realign the bone in his leg and to crawl nearly the entire 200 miles back to Ft. Kiowa, which his party had left 3 months earlier. During his crawl, Hugh comes across an ancient, dying Arikara woman abandoned by her tribe, whose members Hugh knows would kill him on sight in a heartbeat. Out of kindness, Hugh gives her water and cooks her food. He then buries her when she dies. No good deed goes unpunished; the dead woman gives Hugh an unwelcome gift—lice.
Unlike my wife and me, Hugh knows lice. He removes his buckskin clothes, puts them on an ant mound, and the ants feed on the lice. Soon the ants are crawling on Hugh too. When they begin to bite, he knows that he is clean. Hugh calls the lice “graybacks”, a term not now in usage that was common among Civil War soldiers who were tormented by lice also. Not too long ago, nearly everyone would have gotten lice at one time or another.
Almost certainly my wife and I naively overreacted. The Center for Disease Control says that head lice infestation, or pediculosis, is a common occurrence. Firm data on head lice incidence in the United States are not available, but 6 to 12 million infestations are estimated to occur each year in the United States among children 3 to 11 years of age, who are more likely to contract it than older children or adults. Some studies suggest that girls get head lice more often than boys, probably because of more frequent head-to-head contact. Head lice are insects that neither fly nor jump; transfer to another person is largely passive. Head lice feed on human blood; they are obligate human parasites, meaning they need humans (and humans only) to complete their life cycle. They can live no more than 36 hours apart from their host and prefer to lay their eggs (nits) on hair. There is no evidence that head lice transmit disease. Children diagnosed with head lice need not to be sent home early from school and can return to class after appropriate treatment has begun. Successful treatment should kill all crawling lice, but nits may persist after treatment. No big deal.
But when I was a child, I don’t remember anyone getting head lice. None of my siblings ever had them, and others tell me the same. What happened? Are head lice more common today?
Apparently, they are. Reasons for this are not certain, but societal changes surely contributed. Forty or so years ago classroom behaviors began to change. Children no longer only worked alone at individual desks but spent more time in small groups and moved around to different work areas, increasing contact among children and coincidentally promoting infestations. And as the work force expanded and both parents (and single parents) went to work outside the home, more children attended day care and after school programs. This too increased potential contact with infested children and in turn infestation incidence.
People, of course, want head lice about as much as they want a sharp stick in the eye. As the incidence of head lice infestations increased in schools, the demand for effective louse treatments grew. And a lucrative industry was spawned. One current estimate is that various louse shampoos, sprays, and rinses bring in $150 million a year.
Many of these treatments are based on pyrethroid-type compounds (originally isolated from chrysanthemums). For a time, the treatments delivered eradication in one application as promised but not now. Resistance in pest populations resulting from extensive use of single or similar compounds is an old story. And it’s a big problem too. Consider multiple drug-resistant tuberculosis or resistances in such common bacteria as Staphylococcus and Streptococcus (“flesh eating bacteria”). So why not lice?
This is the age of the New Normal, and that’s any suboptimal situation that we seem unable to correct: the jobless recovery, events such as the Boston Marathon bombings, and (I read) for the fast food industry, price cuts and stagnant sales. I suggest we add head lice infestation to this assemblage.