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Is Vashon's lice problem growing?

Beth Tuttle and Henry Hazleton’s long-haired daughters have brought lice home twice. The first time, the girls and their mom — who’s head had also begun to itch — doused their hair in olive oil and covered it in plastic for a few hours to begin the process of getting rid of the bugs.

“The girls actually kind of enjoyed doing the treatments in the beginning,” Tuttle said. “It looks kind of goofy when you wrap your head in Saran wrap, and we took pictures. Their cousin (a second-grader at the time) wanted to get them so badly so that she could come over for a treatment, too.”

The story was different for Karen Boyle’s family.

When Boyle’s kindergarten daughter Lucy got itchy in her Halloween koala bear outfit two years ago, her parents attributed her scratching to her furry costume. The culprit was not the costume, but a lice infestation that lasted through Christmas.

“It was one of the most horrible experiences of parenthood,” Boyle said.

Such is the case for many Vashon families who struggle with this pesky and persistent parasite — at best, an annoyance, at worst, an ongoing, family-wide ordeal that can take months to eradicate.

There are an estimated 12 million cases of head lice in the United States each year; and on Vashon, some say, the problem is growing. And while lice are not considered a public health problem because they don’t carry any disease, the hassle of eradication can be time-consuming and bewildering — in part, because eradication has gotten harder as lice have grown resistant to insecticides.

It used to be that if people had lice, their family would treat them with an insecticidal shampoo, vacuum thoroughly, do a lot of laundry, and the problem almost certainly would be behind them, Tom Langland, a pharmacist and one of the owners of the Vashon Pharmacy, noted.

But because of their growing resistance, lice tend to linger now, causing frustration on several fronts and creating the feeling for many that lice are more prevalent than they used to be.

Earlier this month, Langland said the pharmacy is seeing a marked influx in the number of people seeking help with the bugs.

“This is the worst summer I remember, and I have been in the business 35 years,” he said, noting that every two or three days someone asks for assistance with lice products; he has no idea how many people buy products without asking questions.

Dr. Kelly Wright of Vashon Natural Medicine said she has also seen an increase of people dealing with lice this summer. She sells a natural, non-toxic lice-killing shampoo and has sold much more than normal in recent weeks.

Some staff at Chautauqua Elementary School — which faces the lice issue continually — are not sure there are more lice than there used to be. The nature of pests is that their population fluctuates, school nurse Nora Denning said. But she thinks it is possible the problem is at a peak.

The lice this past year at the school were clustered in certain classrooms, she said, and the classrooms all took steps to deal with the problem.

Communication about lice infestations is key, health professionals say, and Denning said that it is critical that people tell school personnel when they know a child has lice so control measures can be put in place.

“We have the issue of parents not informing us,” she said.

At Chautauqua, when a child has lice, Denning checks the whole class and sends home a note informing parents of the situation, encouraging them to look for lice over the course of the next 10 days and giving treatment advice.

When she finds lice on a child, that child must go home for treatment. The child typically returns the next day, when Denning checks them and OKs their return. Children are allowed in school with nits (eggs), which cannot be passed to anyone, but not live lice.

Because of the lice’s insecticidal resistance and many people’s wish not to put toxic substances on their children or themselves, a host of alternative treatments have come to the fore. But many people who deal with issue in their professional lives say that the cornerstone of treatment is tenacious picking of nits and removal of live lice.

“My advice is do not count on any treatment other than physical removal of all the lice and eggs with the help of a good lice comb and some kind of liquid or gel that facilitates removal,” Langland said.

Kate Baehr, the principal at Chautauqua Elementary School, concurs.

“We don’t like chemicals on our kids’ hair, and I do think some of the home remedies can work. ... But it is the diligence of doing it (picking nits and lice) again and again and again and again. And just when you think you should be done, that’s when you need to check again,” she said.

Laura Wheeler and her three young children dealt with lice last fall. Each member of the family got lice, except for her husband.

“It seemed like we had it forever,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler and her husband noticed that their third-grade son had lice in September, shortly after school started, though Wheeler suspects he got them at summer camp in the end of August, where she belatedly found out that other kids there had them.

Not knowing he had been exposed to lice, she first attributed her son’s itchy head to dry scalp, she said, adding that she wished parents of the affected kids at camp had spoken up.

“I did not know anything about lice,” she said. “I may have been able to catch it sooner if I’d known it was around, what to look for and that kids who had been around my child had it.”

Presumably, parents do not speak up because some feel a misplaced sense of shame in having lice.

“The social stigma just has to leave,” Wheeler said.

Langland agrees.

“There is an unreasonable amount of fear and stigma,” Langland said, stressing that having lice has nothing to do with hygiene.

For Wheeler and her family, the lice problem lasted for weeks. They tried many remedies, including one round with insecticidal shampoo, a slathering of mayonnaise and a shower cap overnight and a treatment with Cetaphil cleansing lotion and a hair dryer, which many users report good results from.

Fed up, she began to pick the nits methodically every day, sometimes twice.

She and the kids got up early before school, and she thoroughly went through each child’s hair.

“When I swore I could not see any, I would keep nit picking for at least a week,” she said.

With daily looking she found nits for three weeks, she said. When she had some reasonable hope they were in the clear, she did quicker checks for a month.

“I really believe the nitpicking did it,” she said.

After noticing their first lice in September, they were free of lice by Thanksgiving, but it was not until Christmas that they felt certain they had truly eradicated them.

Many people point to the elementary schools as the source of the lice problem. But Denning notes that exposure to lice does not happen solely in school, as the Wheelers experienced.

“It is a community problem,” she said, adding that lice can easily pass from person-to-person on sports teams, at the movies and at overnights — anywhere people gather in close quarters.

She wishes all parents of Chautauqua kids would be more vigilant and check their kids each week.

“A good lice comb is a good investment,” she added.

With the checking of kids and the letters to parents, Baehr says they are doing everything a school is commonly expected to do. Yet she understands the issue is a tough one, and Chautauqua’s Site Council is slated to take it up this school year.

Baehr will propose to the council members a model from a previous school she where she worked. A group of parents were trained in lice detection and given lice-hunting supplies. A bank of 10 volunteers set up in the school and checked each child’s head at least once a month and after every major school break. Because everyone was involved, there was no stigma attached.

“Boy, was that a prestigious position to be on — the Lice Committee,” she said, adding with a laugh, “It’s another way to get involved in the classroom.”

But the only way this could be done at Chautauqua, she said, is if the PTSA took it on because the staff does not have adequate resources for the task.

Baehr and her family, which includes a young son at Chautauqua, have not dealt with lice, and she hopes to keep it that way. But she also expressed that different societies have different norms about dealing with lice — and that many do not even attempt to remove them.

“As a culture, we kind of freak out,” she said. “In some cultures, it just is what it is. It’s just part of being.”

Tom Langland, who grew up on the Island, offered another kind of perspective.

“When I was a kid, no one had lice,” he said. “The problem then was pinworms.”

For the uninitiated, pinworms are contagious intestinal worms that inflect unpleasantries all their own, but pinworms, as they say, are another story.

Box

Lice: Good to know

Lice can be seen by the naked eye, but a bright light and a magnifying glass can make finding them easier.

Nits look tiny off-white ovals and are about the size of a grain of sand.Lice “cement” their eggs to the hair close to the scalp and will not move when you flick them or brush the hair. It is more common to see nits than lice. The eggs hatch within one to two week after they are laid.

Adult lice are small, no bigger than a sesame seed, and are brownish tan.

Lice dine on their host frequently and die within three days of being on their own.

An itchy scalp is not a reliable indicator of weather or not a child has lice. Lice can be present for weeks before itching sets in.

To help remove lice, inert gels are available over the counter. They loosen the glue that holds the nits to the hair and slow down the lice in the hair.

Prescription medications are not available for getting rid of lice. The current over-the-counter products are at the limits of toxicity for human use.

A good lice comb is one that has very fine, long teeth. Some lice products have recently begun to package good combs with their products.

Animals (like the family dog) cannot get head lice.

School starts Sept. 2; check your kids before they go.

If you find lice, for the child’s sake, try to maintain a sense of humor because children can be easily upset by thinking their is something wrong with them. Some pediatric health experts recommend books and DVDs for kids while picking the nits — and trying to make the experience one of closeness and “The Great Lice Adventure.”

Useful Web sites

A lot of information on non-toxic lice-killing treatments, including treating the hair with Listerine, can be found at www.thepeoplespharmacy.com.

About.com offers step-by-step instruction on using Cetaphil facial cleanser to get rid of lice, a treatment that Dave Willingham at the pharmacy says they have gotten good feedback on and is non-toxic.

The school district carries much useful information on its Web site. See the health room section at www.vashonsd.wednet.edu/chautaqua/.

t The headache of head lice

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