Just in time for back to school: an alleged invasion of mutant head lice.
This week, a professor presented research at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society that identified a new strain of mutated lice in 25 states, including Missouri and Kansas, reportedly super-resistant to traditional over-the-counter treatments.
The good news: If there’s been a local mutant lice invasion, Kansas City area public health officials have yet to receive panicked reports from doctors or school district officials.
Still, as some parents can testify, head lice infestations can be exasperating to them and upsetting to their children, and at least two businesses are operating in the Kansas City area pledging to banish the pests and their eggs, or nits.
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Jennifer Miller, who for three years has operated Combers KC, an Overland Park treatment center, isn’t surprised by the study’s results.
“It’s been that way for a while, and it’s getting worse and worse,” Miller said.
“Almost everybody who has come to us has tried an over-the-counter product that didn’t work.”
Karen Sokoloff, a co-owner with LiceDoctors, which retains home-visiting technicians in 150 locations across the country including Kansas City, said the resistant strain is not new.
“We have seen them for about 20 years,” she said.
“Because of continued mutation over time, the chemicals do not kill a lot of the bugs and also do not penetrate the shell of the nits.”
Head lice often is treated by a group of insecticides called pyrethroids. One of those, permethrin, is the active ingredient in some anti-lice treatments, but lice populations can develop mutations that make it resistant to it.
Both Miller and Sokoloff stress the importance of experience in treatment.
“The bugs are hard to see, and you need the right equipment,” Sokoloff said. “When the average person tries to pick out nits, they often leave some in.”
At Combers KC, Miller washes lice-infected hair with a shampoo called Happy Heads and then lets it sit for 20 minutes, while the lice die. Then the hair is rinsed with water, after which a combing solution is applied that loosens the nits.
The hair then is combed strand by strand, removing both nits and dead lice. The treatment costs $120 and is guaranteed for 30 days. Miller requires seven-day and 14-day follow-up visits to see that the lice have not returned.
LiceDoctors technicians charge $175 for the first hour and $100 for each additional hour at the home. Treatment for a family of four averages between two and three hours. The company also offers a one-month guarantee.
Sokoloff said her technicians benefit from her company’s 20 years of experience treating more than 150,000 children and adults.
“We know the only way to rectify head lice is to physically extract all of the nits from the head, and also kill the bugs,” she said.
LiceDoctors technicians apply an oil that slows the bugs down and kills them, after which they are combed out with a professional comb, Sokoloff said. The hair then is checked strand by strand.
Late summer is the peak time for head lice reports, Sokoloff said, given that parents have had more time to observe their scratching children, who may have just returned from a summer camp. Meanwhile, school nurses are getting their first look at students after several months.
Kansas City area schools, however, have not reported serious lice problems.
“Our nursing department hasn’t received any word from the schools about this being a problem so far this school year,” said Ray Weikal, a Kansas City Public Schools spokesman.
Barbara Mitchell, spokeswoman for the Johnson County Health Department, said her office also has heard nothing.
It’s true, she added, that head lice is not considered by Kansas health officials to be a “reportable disease,” such as measles.
Still, Mitchell added, county health officials remain in constant contact with representatives of school districts, hospitals and physicians’ offices who routinely contact the health department if they monitor an uptick in disease or illness.
“They usually let us know,” Mitchell said, “and there have been no reports on this.”
In Kansas City, Kan., where public school students returned to classes last week, no new breakouts of head lice have been reported, officials said.
Still, one national expert recommends vigilance. Resistant lice likely already have arrived in Kansas City, said Marc L. Lame, an entomologist, professor and director of the environmental science master’s program at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind.
“We have known for two or three years at least about the resistance in lice,” said Lame, who has worked with the Environmental Protection Agency in integrating pest management in public schools.
Three years ago, Lame said, the resistance rate among lice was at 30 percent, meaning that at least 30 percent of lice would not be affected by usual treatments.
It’s reasonable to expect that percentage to increase, he said.
“About 1 percent of schoolchildren normally have lice,” Lame said. “So, if you have 500,000 schoolchildren in the Kansas City area, that means 5,000 of them will have lice.”