Education: Bug-busters: not such a lousy idea

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The Independent Online
The four- and five-year-olds in the reception class of Gospel Oak Primary School in Hampstead, north-west London, are painting giant headlice when the school nurse arrives to tell them how to get rid of the real thing.

Wide-eyed and attentive, they sit cross-legged on the classroom carpet and nod vigorously when the nurse, Jennie Harvey, asks them if they wash their hair in the bath. 'Well, then, I want to tell you all about this very special comb,' she says.

That afternoon the children will go home bearing fine-toothed plastic combs as well a sheet outlining how to hunt for headlice, for the school is taking part in 'Bug-Busting' on 31 October.

In the spring term headlice were rampant in this classroom. Then Mrs Harvey became Gospel Oak's new school nurse and she introduced bug-busting to teachers and parents with discussions and a video. Parents were asked to ring the national bug-busting helpline for advice on treatment if they found lice.

Christina Muskin, the class teacher, says: 'Parents were not happy with having to keep using insecticides on their children's hair and I wasn't happy either. In the summer term we made the children aware of the need to check regularly for lice and the children pestered the parents. There was much less of a problem in the summer term and we haven't had much trouble this term.'

Gospel Oak has 475 pupils from a wide range of backgrounds - headlice are no respecters of social background. The children in Ms Muskin's class are completely unbothered by the idea of lice. Their hands shoot up when they are asked who has already had headlice, as indeed they do when asked how many legs a louse has, what colour they are and the proper name of its feelers.

They apply the bug-busting stickers that Mrs Harvey hands out and most of them enthusiastically attack their hair with their new combs. One boy prefers to comb his jeans and his teeth.

They sing a bug-busting song to the tune of 'Here we go Round the Mulberry Bush' - 'This is the way we bust the bug, bust the bug . . ' and they listen mesmerised when told to search their bathwater for little black insects after they have used their bug-busting combs.

'If everybody did it at once we would get rid of lice altogether, wouldn't we? So it is very important,' says Mrs Harvey. Yes, they nod.

Then the best thing all morning turns up. Joanna Ibarra, the national bug-busting campaign co-ordinator, arrives with some real headlice, which she carefully places on a tissue on the carpet. 'Don't blow on them or you will blow them away,' she says.

The children crowd round the pink tissue, heads together in the way that most young children pass on lice to each other - through hair-to-hair contact. 'They're really little,' says five-year-old Max. 'That's right,' says Ms Ibarra. 'The smallest is the size of a pinhead and the largest the size of a matchhead.'

'If you put your finger near it, it might bite you,' says one child.

Mrs Harvey thinks this is by far the best way of tackling headlice. When she started work as a school nurse 12 years ago the local health authority was still having children's hair checked by school nurses.

'You would get a report of headlice and you would rush over and check the whole class. Sometimes you would find lice but you could easily miss them in dry hair and it would lull parents into a false sense of security.

'Looking for lice is a job for parents. Lice are not in schools - they are on heads. When the school closes for the summer holidays there is not a louse left behind.'

WARNING SIGNS 1. Small amounts of black powder (louse faeces) falling from head.

2. Combing or brushing out a tiny dead insect (they live from 20-60 days).

3. Combing or brushing out cast skins (a bit like dandruff).

4. Itching caused by allergic reaction to louse bites. This might not set in for 10,000 bites so you may have had lice from anything between six weeks and three months before you start to scratch.

DETECTION 1. Each week comb hair wet with conditioner in small sections over a white towel or kitchen paper. Use a plastic fine-toothed comb.

2. Look out for tiny, wingless, dark brown/reddish insects (adults) or paler coloured tinier ones (babies) or nits (tiny, empty eggs) cemented to a strand of hair.

3. Put a hair near anything supicious. If it is the real thing, the louse will climb back on once it has dried.

4. Treat with preparations available from pharmacist or repeat No 1.

PREVENTION 1. Ask possible contacts to check for headlice, as they are transmitted by lingering head-to-head contact.

2. Do a weekly check on very wet hair .

(Photograph omitted)