Parents dread being notified that the scourge of classrooms (and homes with young-age children) – head lice – is back in circulation. But, this year, scientists report there is even more reason to worry about the “louse-y” news. The insects have mutated and infestations of the new “super” lice have been reported in 25 states, just in time for the start of the school year.
Head lice have developed a gene mutation that essentially teaches them to common treatments to eradicate the pests. Those treatments typically involve over-the-counter products known as pyrethroids, which have permethrin as an active ingredient to rid scalps of lice. However, new research presented today at the 250th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) indicates that the lice populations currently invading scalps in at least half of the U.S. have now developed a resistance to the chemical..
This super lice resistant to today’s treatments were first discovered in Israel during the late 1990s, according to an ACS press release. Since then, the lice have migrated and spread in the U.S. affecting scalps in most corners of the country (noticeably, they are not in the Rocky Mountain states, which probably reflects climate and altitude differences.).
“We are the first group to collect lice samples from a large number of populations across the U.S.,” commented researcher Kyong Yoon of Southern Illinois University in the ACS statement. “What we found was that 104 out of the 109 lice populations we tested had high levels of gene mutations, which have been linked to resistance to pyrethroids.”
Yoon and other researchers studied samples of lice that had at least one of three genetic mutations that are making the itch-inducing bugs resistant to treatments. The super lice samples came from 25 states, including California, Florida, Texas, New York and Illinois.
People who do not have young children often are unaware of how big of a problem lice can be. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are approximately 6 to 12 million infestations annually spread between children ages 3 to 11 in the U.S. and, of course, to their families. Head lice are generally spread through direct contact with the hair someone else who already has head lice. Such contact can be common among children at school, sports activities, camp and slumber parties, particularly if they share hats, brushes, towels and such.
Most types of head lice in the U.S. have claws, which are better adapted for grasping some types of hair but not others. For example, infestation is less common among African-American children than other races because of their hair type.
While the announcement, just in time for school, that super lice infestations resistant to the most common treatments have been found in 25 states offers reasons for parents to be concerns, the super lice can still be controlled and eradicated by using other chemicals, which could also eventually become ineffective. Some treatments still known to work are available only by prescription. The creatures and their eggs can also be painstakingly picked out nit by nit with a comb from the scalp areas they typically infest, such as behind the ears and near the back of the neck.
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
American Chemical Society: Lice in at least 25 states show resistance to common treatments
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Parasites – Lice – Head Lice
U.S. News & World Report: Health Buzz: Super Lice Hit 25 States
WTVM.com: Birmingham doctor has advice for dealing with “super lice”
Photo of “Bugbuster” courtesy of the Community Hygiene Concern – Creative Commons license