Hello. I'm your worst nightmare

The head louse is back - and he's after your children. By Susan Bassnett

What do you think is the biggest problem parents face today? Over- large class sizes? Bullying in school? Poor teaching? Underfunding? No, the answer is much more basic. It's something that sooner or later affects every child in the country, it is unstoppable and it is at epidemic levels. The answer is head lice.

Like so many smug middle-class parents, I never gave much thought to lice until they picked on me. My three daughters, all with long flowing hair, had never brought home a louse since the first one started school in 1977. Then suddenly last summer our luck ran out. My eight-year-old son couldn't stop scratching, despite his sisters' nagging and daily application of anti-dandruff shampoos. We were on holiday at the time and all assumed that he had sand in his hair, but I inspected his scalp and couldn't see anything suspicious. Then, gradually, we all started itching. By the end of the holiday every one of us was scratching like a deranged hamster. And still I could see nothing.

The moment we arrived home, a neighbour rang to tell me that my son's best friend was infested with lice. We were all scratching furiously, I told her, but I couldn't see a thing.

"They aren't easy to see unless you know what to look for," she said with the experience of a playgroup leader, advising me to buy a nit comb at once.

Everyone combed their hair with it and discovered tiny black objects in their hundreds. I was as bad as the rest of the family. I had become the only Pro-vice-chancellor in the country to have an infestation of lice. It was a grim discovery. My son was pretty laid-back about it, but the girls were appalled.

Urging them not to panic, I rushed to the chemist's. It was a weekend, and the GP's surgery was closed.

If the itching is unpleasant, treating the itching is even worse. It is also very expensive. A bottle of special anti-louse shampoo, enough for one person, set me back pounds 4; there were six of us needing treatment. I was saved the expense because the chemist only had enough for two people. However, the assistant recommended a new shampoo that had just arrived and was supposed to be good for lice. I read the label - lice weren't even mentioned. When I queried this, she became irritated. Of course it doesn't mention lice, she said, people don't want to be reminded of lice when they buy a shampoo. I pointed out that my sole purpose in buying the shampoo was to get rid of lice.

"We're infested with lice at home," I said, "and I need to get this sorted now."

Customers and assistants alike looked away and blushed. Despite the fact that most families in the country will get head lice at some time or another, it is still, apparently, unmentionable, even in a chemist's.

A visit to a second shop resulted in a bottle of something called Prioderm lotion. This cost pounds 7.99 and contained enough for four heads. The label carried warnings: protect the eyes before use; it may cause stinging or inflammation; wear rubber gloves; it may affect permed or coloured hair; it contains flammable alcohol, so use only in a well ventilated room.

When opened, the Prioderm stank so fearfully that the children recoiled. A leaflet in the box explained what it would do to pubic lice and scabies. My neighbour advised against using it. I used it on myself but didn't dare try it on the children; my scalp burned and the fumes were overwhelming. It didn't even clear all the lice.

In the end, we took the slow route. We did not use chemical preparations, resorting instead to the nit comb method. This is far and away the cheapest and most effective strategy. Ordinary conditioner applied to the hair before combing makes the nit comb work even better. After about a week, the number of lice on the teeth of the comb had gone down dramatically, and the itching stopped. Since then, as a precautionary measure, we have been doing the conditioner-and-nit-comb routine every couple of weeks. Occasionally a louse or two and a few eggs turn up.

This distasteful experience has taught me a lot. I have read everything I could lay my hands on about head lice, even looking at magnified photos of the beasts. They have six legs and look like miniature crayfish. They mate frantically and produce more than 50 eggs at every mating. Once established in your hair, they proliferate and can be transmitted rapidly from one person to another. All it takes is for one infested child to lean over a desk and brush against another child's hair, and the lice race along the hairs and take up residence elsewhere. They are, quite simply, unstoppable.

Not long ago, there were regular checks for head lice in schools. These ceased for funding reasons: in times of hardship, better to allocate money on books and buildings... But the problem hasn't gone away; if anything, it has increased. Parents continue to complain bitterly about the demise of the "nit nurse", and schools send out millions of letters to parents every year whenever the infestations become excessive. No school, from the poorest inner-city primary to the most prestigious public school, is exempt from lice. As a school governor, I have learned to sigh and shrug my shoulders with the rest of them whenever a parent protest becomes particularly vocal. There is simply nothing to be done and no money in the system to help in any way.

What is iniquitous is that not only have the inspections in schools stopped, but parents are having to pay extortionate sums of money to get rid of the problem. Moreover, the health education advice that you see around is not entirely disinterested. There may be notices on walls in schools, playgroups or surgeries about head lice, but these are often sponsored by the producers of one of the overpriced anti-louse products. Besides the shampoos and lotions, there is even a battery-operated comb that stuns the creatures. If my neighbour hadn't warned me, I would have gone on spending a fortune when all I needed was a plastic nit comb and a bottle of conditioner.

The abdication by local authorities of responsibility for the head-louse problem is about to be compounded. Some councils are apparently considering excluding afflicted children from school or even prosecuting parents who can't keep their children free of lice. Meanwhile, some parents are threatening to withdraw their children from heavily infested schools.

These are extreme reactions but reflect the measure of distress and anger that the louse problem causes. At a time when the Government is investing in literacy and numeracy programmes, why can't it earmark some funds for dealing with the louse epidemic? No child is going to learn tables or read for pleasure with hair that's crawling with lice.

Would supplies of plastic combs cost that much? Why can't local authorities issue schools with a supply of these combs to hand out when the problem recurs? Many parents, particularly with large families, couldn't afford any of the products we tried - even if they managed to get hold of them in the first place, given the prejudice aroused by mentioning that you actually have lice - but they would use combs if they had them. The problem won't go away, but it needs dealing with, not ignoring, as cheaply and efficiently as possible. Pass the nit comb again, please.

The writer is Pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick

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