Increase noted in head lice cases

Problem can be disruptive for schools, but officials say surge in incidents not unusual

Terry Roberts editor@cbncompass.ca
Published on February 5, 2009
Pharmacist Brian Healy, owner of Healy's Pharmacy in downtown St. John's, displays some of the products aimed at controlling head lice. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Pharmacists in the St. John's region say they are seeing an increase in demand for the products that treat head lice, but caution that the trend is nothing out of the ordinary.

"We've seen a little bit of an increase. It happens every now and then," said Brian Healy, owner of Healy's Pharmacy, which has locations on Casey Street and Water Street.

Pharmacists in the St. John's region say they are seeing an increase in demand for the products that treat head lice, but caution that the trend is nothing out of the ordinary.

"We've seen a little bit of an increase. It happens every now and then," said Brian Healy, owner of Healy's Pharmacy, which has locations on Casey Street and Water Street.

Healy said he's getting two and three calls a week, and has sold out of at least one product used to treat head lice.

A pharmacist at Capitol Drugs on LeMarchant Road also confirmed an increase in calls from people inquiring about treatments for the tiny insects, which live on the scalp and lay eggs that are called nits.

The insects are about the size of a sesame seed and are easily spread among people in close contact, especially school children.

Health and education experts say cases of head lice are reported every year in this province, and incidents are most prevalent during the winter months, when children spend most of their time indoors.

"A lay person may say, 'my God, there's a lot of it lately.' But it's not much different from years ago," Healy said. "It's not a nice thing to have, but it's nothing to get too alarmed about. You treat it and that's it."

Healy said there are improved treatments available.

Dr. Jim Hutchinson, a professor of medical microbiology at Memorial University, said he wouldn't be surprised if the number of infestations were on the increase. He said things have been relatively quiet in recent years, which is indicative of the cyclical nature of head lice.

His message? Head lice are a natural aspect of human existence, and people from all socioeconomic backgrounds are vulnerable. He should know. His children had head lice several years ago.

"This has nothing to do with being dirty. It's just whether or not the cycle is ripe for these insects to get from person to person and do their thing. They can be hard to make go away quickly, but they do go away," he said.

He said head lice are a nuisance, but they're not dangerous. And because they're insects, people are naturally creeped out and sometimes overreact.

"Having been through it myself with my children, I know how much it upsets people," he said.

"It's not particularly a problem that you have to be real fearful of. It's got to be put into context."

Darrin Pike, director of education with the Eastern School District, wouldn't identify any schools where the issue is most prevalent. He said the district is working closely with officials from Eastern Health and the Department of Education to improve public education, and cleaning staffs are putting in extra effort to keep schools sanitary.

"Winter months are the most pervasive months for us. In some ways it's an annual event," Pike said.

Pike said the issue can be disruptive because it increases absenteeism and often unsettles the student population. It can also be embarrassing for the infected student and their family, and many times cases go unreported. Families are given special assistance in certain circumstances, Pike explain

"There's a certain sense where if your child gets head lice, you did something wrong. But parents who keep their families very clean get head lice," he said.

The practice of sending public health nurses into schools to check for head lice was abandoned many years ago, and education is now emphasized. Information on how to prevent, detect and treat head lice is readily available.

Parents are reminded that head lice do not spread disease, and having head lice doesn't mean you are not clean.

"Parents should be checking their children regularly. It only takes a few seconds. And if there's anything there, treat it right away," said Healy.

There are numerous websites that offer advice on how to detect and treat head lice, including www.caringforkids.cps.ca, which was developed by the Canadian Pediatric Society.

troberts@thetelegram.com