Head lice. In just reading those two words, you may have without thinking raised your hand to your hair and scratched a little.
We naturally try not to think about it because it’s an uncomfortable topic, but it’s a public health issue that is as prevalent today as it ever has been, just ask a camp counsellor or an elementary-school administrator.
Tamsen Sumners, an assistant superintendent with St. Albert Public Schools, said it’s a reality school officials deal with at least on a yearly basis, and sometimes more often than that.
“It’s more common in St. Albert than people would realize,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it happens on a weekly or a monthly basis, but there are times throughout the year where we’ve had an outbreak and they’re extremely difficult to get rid of.”
As recently as this spring, one of the elementary schools in the division had an outbreak that took weeks to get rid of. And in a school environment, it can be extremely difficult to get everything cleaned, you can’t just put everything in a garbage bag and leave it out in the cold winter to freeze it, a common way to get rid of the bugs in a home environment.
To make that challenge more difficult, Sumners added, there are widespread misconceptions associated with head lice, such as the mistaken belief head lice are linked to socio-economic background or poor personal hygiene.
“We also have to work really hard with families so it doesn’t become a stigma,” she said. “These things like clean hair; it’s not a dirty bug. It likes clean environments where it can thrive.”
For Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools Supt. David Keohane, head lice outbreaks in schools are an issue that are perhaps as old as public schooling itself.
“Head lice will never be eradicated from schools. It’s always been a reality in schools,” he said.
And it’s a trend that plays out in his school division as well, with one or two cases of an outbreak in a school reported in each school year.
In days past, the practice was to remove a child from the classroom and isolate them as soon as head lice were discovered, but Keohane said these days the approach has changed as head lice are better understood. The lice won’t jump from one student to the other, so there’s no benefit to isolating them and in fact, isolation could have a detrimental effect on a student’s self-esteem.
Rather, the emphasis is on community health and increased efforts to prevent head lice spreading.
“That’s not totally preventable, but I have found over time that kids themselves become very astute,” Keohane said. “They’re more and more aware themselves because of the shared education of home and school of what’s worth doing.”
Both Keohane and Sumners said school divisions follow Alberta Health Services guidelines in dealing with head lice.
To address head lice infestations, the provincial health provider recommends using an over-the-counter cream, lotion or shampoo, treating with a different product if the problem persists after 48 hours.
Edmonton pharmacist Ron Pohar said the reason different products must be used is because based on some recent studies, head lice can develop resistances to some kinds of insecticides included in treatments.
“I think it’s been happening over the last couple years, but more recent studies are showing it’s a much bigger problem than what we thought it was,” he said, noting one study showed as many as 97 per cent of head lice are resistant to these treatments.
There is a treatment option he describes as mechanical rather than insecticidal, called isopropyl myristate that he described as basically breaking down the exoskeleton and thereby dehydrating the louse. He said while he wasn’t aware of peer-reviewed studies examining its efficacy, some benefit plans such as the Ontario Drug Benefit Program list it as the best treatment option.
For more information on head lice treatment, visit myhealth.alberta.ca.