Houston Chronicle – Battling another kind of pest

Paper: Houston Chronicle
Date: Tue 10/30/2007
Section: B
Page: 1 MetFront
Edition: 3 STAR
Battling another kind of pest / `Lice Squad’ sets up shop to cure itchy scalps

By ALLAN TURNER
STAFF
MISSOURI CITY – Dracula ain’t got nothin’ on Pediculus humanus capitis.

With six tiny, clawlike legs, an insatiable appetite and nothing less than an X-rated capacity for reproduction, the sesame seed-sized human head louse may be the nastiest little blood sucker this side of Transylvania.

When the itching starts, victims traditionally seek relief through physicians, over-the-counter preparations or even folk remedies – more than one kid’s suffered the indignity of the time-honored but ineffectual mayonnaise treatment.

Now, though, for residents of this Houston suburb, help may be as near as the neighborhood shopping center. Registered nurse Penny Warner, who for two years has discreetly visited clients’ homes to treat louse infestations, has opened shop in a former pediatrician’s office in Pecan Plaza.

“We decided to call it `The Texas Lice Squad,’ ” she said of her three-woman operation. “It sounded a lot better than `nit pickers.’ ”

A critical care nurse who left a hospital administrative job to open her own business, Warner said the Lice Squad was inspired by her own family’s encounter with the tiny parasites. When Warner’s daughters, now 8 and 10, came home with lice, Warner and her husband soon found themselves itching.

Lice, whose saliva triggers allergies and itching, feed every three to four hours. And, in its typical 30-day lifespan, a female can lay as many as 300 eggs. While the insects neither fly nor jump, and live only a short time off the human head, they easily spread through hair-to-hair contact.

Head lice are the bane of summer camps and elementary schools.

“Lice target the 3- to 11-year-olds,” Warner said. “In this age group, they hug everybody. When girls are playing together, they huddle, their long hair hanging down. They have slumber parties. There’s just a lot of head-to-head contact, which is how mothers get lice. They cuddle.”

Melinda Phillips, health services director for the Aldine Independent School District, said outbreaks often occur during the winter months.

“Lice don’t jump and they don’t fly; they fall,” she said. “They can go onto the collar of a coat, and if the coats are hung side by side, they can migrate. Kids will trade caps, or they’ll comb each other’s hair.”

Jan Jones, health services director for the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, shared those concerns. “Lice are always an issue for a school nurse from day one,” she said.

Jones said outbreaks might involve only 10 to 20 students, “but it’s always such an emotional thing for parents and staff.”

Once diagnosed with lice, Jones said, students are sent home for treatment. Then, when they return, they are carefully monitored for signs of infestation.

Unfortunately, Warner noted, lice can be biting and breeding for up to a month before the problem is noticed. Some people experience no itching at all. And all that time, the little pests can be spreading to other victims.

Phillips and Jones, who, like Warner, are registered nurses, noted much bogus information about lice circulates, especially on the Web.

Unlike body lice, head lice do not transmit typhus, said Dr. Adelaide Hebert, a pediatric dermatologist with the University of Texas Medical School at Houston.

Hebert said lice can be treated with a variety of over-the-counter preparations or with more potent medicines prescribed by a physician. Lice, she said, have developed a resistance to some of the commonly used products.