Scientist warns of 'hysteria' over lice

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A SCHOOL campaign against head lice organised by a charity with the support of MPs and teachers could damage children's health by unwittingly encouraging parents to use dangerous pesticide medicines.

One of Britain's leading experts on the blood-sucking parasite criticised the campaign - due to culminate in a 'bug-busting' day at the end of next month - for generating hysteria.

Dr John Maunder, director of the Medical Entomology Centre at the University of Cambridge, said the campaign's publicity would lead many parents to use head-lice medicine containing toxic pesticides on children who are free from infection.

He said the campaign, which has the support of Glenda Jackson, the Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate, causes unnecessary alarm by exaggerating the problem in schools.

'It's not a case of a louse epidemic, but an epidemic of louse hysteria. I don't think it is harmless. It encourages people to put medicines in the form of pesticides on to the heads of people who don't need them,' Dr Maunder said.

New cases of head-lice infection were estimated at 50,000 to 70,000 a year, he added. Although too high, the figure did not justify the 3 million bottles of louse medicine sold each year at a cost of pounds 8m. The implication was that only one in every 50 bottles of louse medicine poured on to the scalps of British children was used to treat a genuine infection.

Dr Maunder said the medicines contained similar pesticides to those used by farmers. 'If a farmer tried to put it on a cabbage, he'd need to take a statutory training course. But anyone can put it on a child.'

Community Hygiene Concern, the charity leading the campaign against lice, denied it was exaggerating the problem. It said it makes strenuous efforts to ensure that parents only use pesticide medicines to treat genuinely infected scalps. Earlier this summer, the charity said that one in ten primary schoolchildren would become infected with head lice. The figures led to a spate of warnings about head-lice epidemics.

Joanna Ibarra, the campaign's co-ordinator, said the figures were an 'extrapolation' from surveys in 1986 of about 500 children at two primary schools near London. Official figures, which show a rapid decline in head- louse infections in recent years, are unrepresentative because the Government now makes far fewer school inspections, she said.

But Dr Maunder quotes more recent surveys of several thousand children in different parts of the country showing infections are less than one in a hundred. A study of 3,607 six and seven-year-olds in rural Northumberland, for instance, found five cases - 1 per cent. A survey of 5,655 children in the depressed mining area of Gwent found 33 - about 0.6 per cent. In urban Rochdale, 30 cases were confirmed in 2,959 children - slightly more than 1 per cent.

Despite this, a recent MORI poll of more than 500 parents showed that half listed head lice among the top three health worries - roughly double the number concerned about measles, warts and verrucas.

(Photograph omitted)